'Happyness' is hard-earned in Will Smith drama
"The Pursuit of Happyness," starring Will Smith, begins with one of those "inspired by a true story" notations letting us know we are in for an uplifting anthem to the human spirit. The spirit in this case belongs to Chris Gardner, whose life story was first used as a segment on the TV show "20/20" in 2003.
When we first see him in "The Pursuit of Happyness" – and yes, the misspelling of "happiness" is intentional – Chris is unsuccessfully trying to make ends meet for his family as a salesman of portable bone-scanning machines. (They're about the size of a microwave.) His wife Linda (Thandie Newton) is working overtime to help support Chris and their 5-year-old son Christopher (Jaden Smith, Will's real-life son). Anguished by Chris's woes, she ditches the family and leaves him to care for the boy. Chris is also evicted from his San Francisco apartment and ends up camping out with his son in men's rooms and homeless shelters.
What keeps Chris going is his dream of landing an internship at a brokerage firm. (Early on we see him ogling a fancy car belonging to a broker.) With nothing more than his innate drive and smarts – he's a Rubik's cube whiz – he makes it into the competitive internship program from which only one candidate is chosen.
Set in the Reagan '80s, "The Pursuit of Happyness" is an unabashed advertisement for better living through financial gain. Director Gabriele Muccino, who previously made two acclaimed Italian films, presents Steve Conrad's screenplay without a shred of irony. Perhaps this is because Muccino is seeing the American dream through a foreigner's eyes. Although the suggestion is planted that the homeless situation was also a product of the '80s zeitgeist, we are encouraged to applaud Chris's unalloyed passion for moneyed success. Since the film is framed as the story of a father who will do anything to help his son, it's not difficult to accept this premise, and yet there is something a bit cold-blooded about it. The American dream encompasses more than the brokerage-house bonanza that this film sets forth as the pinnacle of achievement.
Muccino may well have had the classic neorealist films of Vittorio De Sica in mind here. "The Bicycle Thief" is about a father and son living in poverty, and "Umberto D" is about being indigent and alone at the end of one's life.
In those films, though, the heartbreak didn't have an agenda as it does here. Before Chris's eventual redemption, Muccino and Conrad slog us through so many grim paces that even Charles Dickens might have advised them to lighten up. If you see the ads for this movie you might be led to think it's a spangly Will Smith entertainment, but it's actually a big dose of sorrow capped by some last-minute happiness – I mean, happyness.
Smith is effective and his rapport with his real-life son is winning – here we're mercifully spared a case of the cutesies. It's almost impossible to watch this movie and not, on some level beyond reason, succumb. "The Pursuit of Happyness" is an expert piece of calculation: a male weepie engineered for the whole family. Grade: B
• Rated PG-13 for some language.