Will Smith turns in a bravura performance in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” which opens nationwide today. The movie, inspired by a true story, builds to one of those marvelous endings where an actor like Smith makes the screen shine and your money feel well spent.
Smith plays Chris Gardner, a real man (see this story) who went from the San Francisco streets to Wall Street. “The Pursuit of Happyness” (the misspelling is intentional) opens in San Francisco in 1981, with Gardner working as a medical salesman. His bitter wife (Thandie Newton) works all the time to help make ends meet, and their 5-year-old son (played by Smith’s real-life son, Jaden) good-naturedly goes with the flow, even enduring a sour day-care where watching “Love Boat” and “Bonanza” passes for quality care.
Selling portable bone density scanners, though, is tough, and Gardner thinks he could do better as a stock broker–after all, he’s always been good with numbers and with people. But wife Linda says it’s a pipedream and gives him no support when he decides to apply for a brokering internship at Dean Witter.
Linda leaves, and when Gardner gets accepted into the competitive brokering program, he must juggle fatherhood, the training and still trying to sell those scanners, which provide some terrific story beats and genuine laughs.
Smith is nothing short of fantastic here. He conveys Gardner’s will to be a good father while simultaneously hurtling obstacle after obstacle to be that. He is a man put-upon, a man discouraged, but a man who never quits.
As he tells his son, “You want something? Go get it. Period.” Gardner does just that in the face of overwhelming odds. Down to pennies with no place to live, he continues to pursue happiness, even when it means literally running from one appointment to the next.
“Happyness” has hints of “Erin Brokovich” in that both focus on people whose innate and applied gifts almost go unnoticed on account of harsh circumstances. “Brockovich,” as a movie, is bouncier than “Happyness.” Gardner is so consistently hammered by bad luck and impossible circumstances that you almost want to quit for him.
But there will be none of that.
As you watch “The Pursuit of Happyness,” two things about Gardner stand out: He has no one in his life to encourage him, and he never complains. Those elements make his character and this story all the more remarkable and inspiring.
The movie is based on Gardner’s autobiography of the same name, and the script by Steven Conrad makes a mistake by giving Smith a voice-over. That’s especially unnecessary alongside Smith’s emotionally restrained, finely tuned performance.
Voice-over aside, the script and direction by Gabriele Muccino reveal a careful control of the story’s emotional power. “Happyness” doesn’t grandstand or manipulate. It just moves—like more movies should.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language.
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Writer: Steven Conrad
Cast: Chris Gardner: Will Smith; Christopher: Jaden Smith; Linda: Thandie Newton; Jay Twistle: Brian Howe; Martin Frohm: James Karen.
The movie’s official Web site is here.