The advertising for The Pursuit of Happyness leads you to believe that youíll be seeing a generic Hollywood feel-good movie. Youíve got a major star (Will Smith) and a cute little boy going through lots of hardships on the way to what is clearly a life-affirming ending. Movies like that can be entertaining, but they also often feel spoon-fed and, when you get right down to it, out of touch with real life. So it came as a very pleasant surprise to discover that The Pursuit of Happyness avoids these pitfalls and takes an honest, intense look at the kind of day-to-day survival that too many Americans must contend with.
Set in 1981 and based on a true story, the film stars Smith as Chris Gardner, a down-on-his luck husband and father. Chrisís big money-making plan Ė selling high-density bone scanning equipment to doctors Ė has not paid off, leaving him stuck with a room full of expensive machines that he canít unload. His wife Linda (Thandie Newton) resents the fact that she works double shifts to compensate for his inability to sell. Eventually she leaves him and there is a brief conflict over who will take care of 5 year-old Christopher (played by Smithís real son Jaden, whoís clearly a chip off the old charisma block).
Chris wins that dispute and suddenly finds himself a single father with no real income. A chance encounter on the street leads him to discover that the Dean Witter brokerage firm is accepting applications for a six-month internship. Having always been good with numbers, Chris decides to apply. However, there are risks: the internship is unpaid, and only one applicant out of twenty will be chosen for a job. In other words, itís the longest of long shots, but one that could potentially turn their financial situation around.
He submits an application, is accepted despite an unpromising interview, and begins trying to outwork all the other applicants, none of whom are dealing with the outside problems he is. Chris also peddles the machines on the side. The demands of this situation are almost unbearable. Aside from having to study for a final exam, Chris has to cold call clients, sell services, get Christopher to and from day care, locate doctors potentially willing to buy a machine, and find a way to pay rent. When money is low, he and the boy move out of their apartment and into a motel; when it runs out, they race to a shelter every afternoon trying to get a room. They even camp out in a subway bathroom for a night. The obstacles seem endless, yet Chris isnít a complainer and he doesnít engage in self-pity. Instead, he resolves to work faster and harder than everyone else. Of course, he doesnít really have a lot of time to feel sorry for himself because getting by requires constant effort.
The Pursuit of Happyness provides one of the best, most effective portrayals of daily survival that I have ever seen. Director Gabriele Muccino and writer Steve Conrad avoid easy sentimentality. The film never gives you (or the characters) a false sense that everything will be okay. It takes an honest look at the struggles and dangers that people face when they donít have stable housing or a steady income. Watching the movie is like riding a roller coaster of emotion. Every time you think Chris finally has a foothold, something comes along to set him back. The filmmakers donít flinch from the cold hard reality of the situation.
There is an interesting (and emotional) recurring bit involving Chris losing a couple of those machines. We clearly see that this causes financial calamity; each one lost represents $250 that he wonít have. Later, when he sees one at a distance and chases the person carrying it, we understand completely why he would go to such trouble. The Pursuit of Happyness reminds us that being destitute brings with it a certain kind of desperation. Youíre always scraping by, and even little obstacles can create big problems. Major obstacles can be downright catastrophic. I like the way the movie conveys that feeling to us. Lots of films are made about people surviving extreme situations such as natural disasters. Hereís one about a man and a boy trying to survive daily life in America.
Will Smith is obviously a major star and a big box office draw, but heís also a fine actor. For me, The Pursuit of Happyness represents his best work to date. Smith never overplays the character, never fills him with false nobility. He completely grounds Chris Gardner in reality, showing us that heís a man who knows self-pity ultimately leads nowhere. This, as much as his love for Christopher, is what keeps him going. Chris knows that perseverance is the only thing that will make life better, and if that means working twice as hard as the other candidates at Dean Witter, then so be it. As this is a true story that has been heavily promoted in the media, it gives nothing away to say that the real Chris Gardner eventually started his own very successful firm. There is a moment at the end, where Smith has to convey Chrisís pride and relief at the same time. A moment such as this would be easy to overplay; the potential for grandstanding or scenery-chewing is high. Yet Smith hits the exact right note, saying everything there is to say with his eyes. Try not to get choked up Ė you wonít be able to. I hope he gets an Oscar nomination for this brilliant, three-dimensional performance.
Perhaps the best way to sum up The Pursuit of Happyness is to say that it earns its response. I did walk about of the theater with a life-affirming feeling, but it wasnít because the movie manufactured one. I felt that way because this story was told with honesty and integrity. There are no easy answers or solutions here Ė just the idea that if you refuse to give up on life, life will refuse to give up on you. This is absolutely one of my favorite movies of the year.
( out of four)
The Pursuit of Happyness is rated PG-13 for language. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: The Pursuit of Happyness
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