The Pursuit of Happyness
2006Director: Gabriele Muccino
Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton
hile watching The Pursuit of Happyness it occurred to me that Will Smith (who just received an Oscar nomination for his starring role) might have been cheating a little bit. After all, what’s the best way to deliver a convincing portrayal of a dedicated father? Why, cast your son in the role! There’s no doubt that the key selling point of this film is struggling salesman Chris Gardener’s united-we-stand relationship with his son Christopher. As Chris (Will Smith) and Christopher (Jaden Smith) wander down the streets of San Francisco merrily swapping knock-knock jokes, I wondered if Smith could have such charmingly natural chemistry with any other 8-year-old actor.
No matter, though—cheat or no cheat, the Smiths are definitely the highlight of this slight but sporadically affecting film. Based on a true story (aren’t they all?), Happyness tells of the arduous, often quite harrowing life (by feel-good movie standards) Chris and his son lead while Chris slaves away in an unpaid stockbroker internship in the slim hope of a job. All you who fear sappiness, think again—Happyness shies away from over-the-top displays of joy and despair, preferring to play the key dramatic beats of the film with dignified reserve.
That’s not to say Happyness is a work of brutal realism—it’s merely a simple fable of our hero triumphing through perseverance and natural intellect. Will Smith has evolved from the bombastic scene-stealers he played in the ‘90s to a new kind of American everyman, an actor who can attract huge audiences for films as varied as Hitch, Bad Boys II, and I, Robot, and he’s surprisingly suited to this role. It’s largely due to him and the cheery presence of his aforementioned son that Happyness succeeds at all.
Smith’s achievement is that he keeps you really liking the character rather than just admiring his outlandish quest. As Chris runs across a busy street and gets knocked down by a car, only to keep running (“get to the hospital!” the driver shouts, to which Chris counters “I gotta go to work!”), you may find yourself thinking not “who is this lunatic?” but “you bet he’s gotta go to work!” He might be an unpaid, homeless single father, but dammit if he isn’t going to run to get behind that desk! Only in America, right?
Outside of Smith’s performance, there’s a lot of fault to be found. In the pedestrian hands of director Gabriele Muccino (who directed the Italian-language crossover hit L’Ultimo Bacio) San Francisco never comes alive as a setting, serving only as a disappointingly drab backdrop to Gardener’s misadventures. There’s a wholly unnecessary voiceover (“this part of my life is called running,” Smith handily informs us as his character runs around a lot), a plot that relies on a series of rather ludicrous coincidences, and Thandie Newton in the unfortunate role of Chris’ harridan runaway wife, Linda. Linda’s concerns about her husband’s behavior (namely, that he’s abandoning all hope of salary for months for a one in fifty shot at a job) are quite reasonable, but the character is written as such a merciless, pessimistic harpy that the audience is almost invited to cheer when she gives up and walks out.
That’s the key problem with Happyness—Chris’s titular pursuit is portrayed as so good, so pure, so ingrained in the rights of the common American (remember, this is set in the ‘80s, so greed is good!) that we cannot decry what he puts his son through. We the audience have seen the trailer, we know it’s based on a true story and we’re pretty sure how the plot will end: that’s what keeps you on Chris’ side, not his unwavering conviction. Such predictability is the handicap of any feel-good movie, and The Pursuit of Happyness breaks the mold only in the case of its central performance.
The Pursuit of Happyness is currently playing in wide release.
By: David Sims
Published on: 2007-02-06