THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (Gabriele Muccino, 2006)
Being a good, hard-working person who loves one's family should be all that it takes for a lifetime of joy. Sadly, it doesn't always work out that way. In THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is all those things. He breaks his back day in and day out in 1981 San Francisco trying to sell the portable bone density scanners in which he sank his life savings. Unlike his own dad, he's a good father to his son Christopher (Jaden Smith) and loves his wife Linda (Thandie Newton).
Yet each day is a struggle. Chris' business investment hasn't been as lucrative as he expected. Doctors like his product but don't consider it a necessity. The meager income he and his wife make isn't really enough to pay the monthly bills or their outstanding taxes.
One day Chris observes the smiling faces of people flowing into and out of an office building. What could they be doing that has them flush with cash and happiness? He learns that they are employed at a stock brokerage firm, one that also happens to be accepting applications for a six-month internship program. Chris has always been good with numbers, so he jumps at the chance to make a career switch that will make him more capable of providing for his family.
Linda isn't as enthralled with his plan. Since Chris has no experience as a stock broker, she believes he's wasting his time applying for a spot in the competitive program. As both of them later learn, the internship is unpaid. Upon completion only one of the twenty interns is likely to earn a job with the company. It doesn't take a math whiz to see that the odds don't favor Chris.
He is undeterred, but Linda cannot take it any longer. She follows through with her threat to leave Chris but agrees to leave their son with her husband. As if life weren't urgent enough before, now he must fulfill the role of two parents while working even harder to sell the remaining scanners to sustain them during his internship at Dean Witter.
The common struggles of working people are rarely shown in major Hollywood films without some embellishments to glamorize poverty, usually in imbuing the poor with special wisdom about what's important. Such techniques might make audiences feel better, but these narrative devices can feel dishonest. Based on a true story, THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS is a feel-good film with plot conveniences that stack needless burdens on the main character, but it takes great care to show how difficult it can be to pull oneself up. Shot with muted colors on a finer grain film stock, the images have a grittier texture. In story and style THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS also sounds a faint echo of the Italian neorealist tradition. (Chris' hand-to-mouth living and constant setbacks recall UMBERTO D.)
As Chris hopes to change the trajectory of his professional life, THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS serves a similar purpose for Smith. The happy-go-lucky star of several blockbusters remains as affable as ever, but here Smith trades his usual suaveness and stylishness for gray-flecked hair, work clothes, and lower class living conditions. The change looks good on him and benefits the film. As Chris, Smith radiates decency radiates even in the most dire circumstances.
The key scene in THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS and for Smith's performance arrives in one of those ridiculous movie conventions when the wrong events converge. The day before the most important interview of his life Chris is hauled into the local precinct because of unpaid parking tickets. He spends his last dollars to take care of them, but he must be kept in a holding cell until the check clears the next morning. Of course, that's not long before his internship interview. And yes, because Chris was painting his apartment when he was detained, he's raggedly dressed and splattered with paint. Chris impresses the interviewers and convinces the audience that he could do so because Smith comes across as humble, intelligent, and composed while obviously being in desperate need of the opportunity.
Smith's charisma appears to have been passed along to his son Jaden, who plays his child in the film. The younger Smith gives a relaxed performance that is cute but not overly precocious.
What THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS lacks in surprises it compensates for in heart. It won't take two guesses to determine how Chris' story turns out, but it's gratifying to see him chase survival and exceed his expectations.