© 2006 Ray Wong
The Pursuit of Happyness (yes, it's a typo in the title, which is explained in the movie) is a rags-to-riches story that shamelessly tugs at our heartstrings. In lesser hands, the story would quickly sink to a tooth-aching sugar low. What we have here, however, is a tour de force performance from one of the most popular leading men of our generation.
Chris Gardner (Smith) is a down-and-out salesman in San Francisco selling a high-end medical equipment that most doctors consider "unnecessary." He can't pay his rent or his taxes, and has to send his son, Christopher (Jaden Smith), to a daycare in Chinatown because that's all he can afford. His financial troubles put a heavy strain on his marriage. When he decides to do something about it and take up an unpaid internship at Dean Witter Brokerage in hopes of becoming a stock broker, Linda leaves him and moves to New York. Chris insists on keeping custody of his son, and Linda reluctantly agrees.
Juggling between being a full-time dad, an intern, and a salesman during the weekend, Chris has a hard time getting it all together. Soon, he and his son are evicted from their apartment. One setback leads to another and they find themselves becoming homeless. There's absolutely no guarantee that he will make it at Dean Witter (only one in twenty interns will be selected), but Chris is determined to never give up. He tells his son, "Never let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do." Even as he carries his suitcase and his son from temporary housing to temporary housing, he still believes that one day everything will work out.
Will Smith (Hitch) can do no wrong with this role: it's tailor-made for him. He oozes charisma and charm and sincerity, even during the character's darkest times. He also has the right mix of intensity, humor, and physicality to play Christ Gardner. His tenderness toward his son adds tremendous appeal to the character and the film. It helps that Smith's real son, Jaden (All of Us), was cast to play his onscreen son. Their chemistry is natural and undeniable, not to mention Jaden's charm and cuteness, no doubt inherited from his father. It's one of the most rewarding father-son pairs in movie history.
Thandie Newton (Crash) plays Gardner's disheartened wife with sensibility. Yes, she is selfish, she is grumpy, but she doesn't come across as evil or unkind -- just conflicted and worn out. You sense that she does love her husband and son, but she's been eaten by constant disappointment and financial stress for so long that she just gives up. Brian Howe (Deja Vu) is amiable as Jay Whistle, the Dean Witter executive who believes in Chris Gardner and gives him a chance. Kurt Fuller (Ray) has a brief role as a kind CEO who inadvertently helps Chris. Takayo Fisher (Memoirs of a Geisha) has a brief but interesting role as the owner of the Chinese daycare.
Based on the true life story of Chris Gardner, owner of Gardner Rich Brokerage, Steve Conrad's (The Weather Man) script sticks to a conventional storytelling structure with a lean and straightforward arc. There really is no subplot in this story (not even a love story or mystery), so at times it feels a little tiring and one-note. The situations Chris Gardner and his son go through also seem contrived at times -- just how much can they take? The morals are rather blatant, and we know how it's going to end, so there are really no surprises. The piling-on feels exhausting, and is only saved by the humor and Smith's sincere performance.
And that's the strength of the film that lifts the film. Italian director Gabriele Muccino (Ricordati di me) is wise to keep the camera focused on the father-son leads, and explore the tender relationship between them. The production has a no-frill look to it, and it reminds me of yet another rags-to-riches story, Working Girl, with a similar uplifting ending.
In the end, I understand why Conrad has chosen to add insults to injuries over and again to bring down Chris Gardner: as contrived as that is, it does show character. And the ending is made even sweeter, even though the audiences expect that. They make a great choice by ending the film the way it does, because as much as it's a story about Chris Gardner's determination to succeed in business, it really is about his heart and his devotion to his son. We've been pursuing that for the entire 117 minutes, and at the end, we really do relate to that happyness of knowing our true worths, and feeling that love all around us.
Stars: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fisher
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Writer: Steve Conrad
Distributor: Columbia Pictures/SONY
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language
Running Time: 117 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 9
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.4 out of 10