Don't be fooled by the cute title and the heartwarming shots of Jaden Smith tying his dad's tie: The bulk of Will Smith's latest movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, is neither happy nor heartwarming. Rather, it is painful to watch, serving as a test of tolerance to see just how much desperation, terror, and exhaustion we can witness one man going through. And that's exactly what makes it good.
Without a doubt, one of the best things about The Pursuit of Happyness is the career-making performance by Smith, who moves through every emotional peak and valley with appropriate and astounding gravitas. Inspired by a true story, the movie tells the story of a San Francisco salesman named Chris Gardner (Smith) whose life is starting to feel like an endless climb up one of the city's more brutal hills. His character is toiling in a less-than-lucrative job selling portable bone-density scanners, and he cringes to send his son Christopher (played by Smith's real-life son, Jaden) to a cut-rate daycare center that can't even manage to spell "happiness" right on its mural.
Meanwhile, the son's mother, Linda (Thandie Newton), is pulling double shifts and getting fed up with the family's endless debt. Conflicted, she decides to leave, and Chris is left to care for his son alone. Unable to pay the rent, Chris and his son are soon evicted from their apartment and forced to move into a motel. But that's just the premise, so
It's here that the story moves beyond one man's biography to become a broad-reaching statement about the plight of the working poor, set against the backdrop of Reagan-era America. Chris, after seeing the crowds of happy, smiling people pouring out of an SF brokerage firm, decides to apply for an internship as a stock broker. Incredibly sharp and personable, he lands the job despite his lack of a college education, only to discover that the internships are unpaid. He accepts anyway, thinking that the job could be the ticket to a better life but at the same time plunging his family further into poverty.
From here, we see the pair finding shelter anywhere they can, from train-station bathrooms to charitable churches, while Gardner struggles not only to look presentable at work but also to excel in his highly competitive job.
Viewers familiar with San Francisco will have fun watching this movie, because not since the first Dirty Harry movie has the city been cast in such a major role. But for the rest of the viewing populace, there is little respite from the endless gauntlet of crushing hardships that Chris faces. The only real relief is getting to witness the deepening relationship between father and son. While the young Smith is perfectly adequate and predictably adorable as Christopher, it's the elder Smith who really shines, by creating a character who is endearing despite his flaws as a parent.
Frankly, I found this movie difficult to wrap my brain around, and that might be because it's a very American story told through the unique perspective of an Italian director, Gabriele Muccino. To the director's credit, The Pursuit of Happyness is brutally real and dismal in a way that most Hollywood films aren't, but the script was often too light and simple for such a heavy subject. What's more, the movie's takeaway—a sort of testament to the power of the American dream—makes some rather unsettling connections between the pursuit of happiness and the accumulation of money. But that doesn't obscure the most important fact, which is That Pursuit of Happyness is far more complex than the movie's feel-good family movie trailers suggest.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures