The Pursuit of Happyness
2006, PG-13, 117 min. Directed by Gabriele Muccino. Starring Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton, Dan Castellaneta, Brian Howe, James Karen, Kurt Fuller.
REVIEWED By Toddy Burton, Fri., Dec. 15, 2006
If you’ve seen the schlocky trailer for The Pursuit of Happyness, you’ve seen a better version of the actual film. Based on a true story, the movie follows Chris Gardner (Smith), a self-made success who trained as a stockbroker while homeless and raising a young son on the streets of San Francisco. When the film begins, Gardner's life balances between despair and disaster. His ultrabitchy wife (Newton) can’t criticize her husband enough, his fledgling entrepreneurial endeavors drain his savings, and his wistfully wise son (played by Smith’s actual son, Jaden) needs love. Although it's clear that the situation is bad, the filmmakers are relentless in their portrait of just how awful it is. After his wife walks out on the family, Gardner and son get kicked out of both their apartment and a seedy motel. Ultimately, father and son have no choice but to crash at a variety of homeless shelters, subways, or in one particularly wrenching sequence, in a public bathroom. But Gardner possesses both a dream and supernatural drive. When he has a chance encounter with a stockbroker, he learns that you don’t need to have a college degree to achieve wealth and, natch, happiness. So he obsessively focuses on getting accepted into an internship program at a highly competitive brokerage firm. As Gardner works incessantly to keep his dream alive and his son cared for, the humanity of his character remains absent. He ceases to be a person in exchange for a goal-oriented machine. We watch as Gardner submits to his bullying manager, finds rejection from homeless shelters, and struggles to keep five dollars in his pocket. But we don’t see any vulnerability. As any savvy viewer knows, this movie has to have a happy ending, although you have to sit through nearly two hours of contrived torment to get there. Truly, Gardner’s real-life story is one of unbelievable triumph against insurmountable odds, yet the film so relentlessly pursues the character’s obstacles that when hope does come, it’s simply a case of too little too late. And as likable as Smith is, his character is never fleshed out beyond that of the self-made superman. Though pretty to look at (with camerawork by Phedon Papamichael) and inspiring to contemplate, this story of human triumph needs a lot more of the human for an audience to actually experience the triumph.