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Will Smith’s noble Pursuit to happiness

by Glen Baity

In the beginning, there was Job.

A few thousand years later, there was Chris Gardner. A few open sores aside, the stories follow a strikingly similar trajectory.

The updated tale goes like this: In 1981, Gardner, a struggling medical supplies salesman and father of one gambled everything on a long-shot chance at becoming a stockbroker. On the way he would cling to life by a tether, holding on for the sake of his young son, who accompanied him through the ordeal.

Gardner, who retired this year a multi-millionaire, gave his input into the film, a fictionalized account of his own life. The Pursuit of Happyness chronicles Chris’ perilous journey from the gutter to the clouds. Though far from flawless, it’s an engaging story that poignantly portrays the struggle with poverty that millions of Americans endure every minute of every day.

Unlike many of those stories, however, The Pursuit of Happyness has an improbably happy ending, which is the only thing that stands between this film and Requiem for a Dream (well, that, and a few thousand grams of crank).

Like I said, Gardner made it out alive. The fact that I knew that going in was the only thing that made the film bearable. In the same way Spider-Man 2 spent its first hour and a half crapping on Peter Parker’s head, Happyness continually browbeats its hero until very nearly the last scene.

And it takes a while to get there. On the way, you’ll ache as Chris, a perfectly lovely guy, endures hardship after hardship: His wife (Thandie Newton) leaves him. The bone scanners he sells directly to hospitals, each a potential $250 lifeline, are repeatedly stolen and recovered. He loses his house, is kicked out of his hotel room and leaves behind most of his possessions when he is forced to sleep on subway cars, in public bathrooms and homeless shelters. He is perpetually down to his last $5 bill, which has a habit of drifting painfully from his tattered wallet.

Exacerbating his situation is the presence of his pre-school age son (played by Smith’s real-life son, Jaden), whose well being in these harsh circumstances is a source of constant, unyielding worry.

Even half that hardship would be enough to make a normal man succumb to his own sorrows, but what makes Chris special is his seemingly superhuman, indomitable spirit. Every moment not spent finding food and shelter, he spends studying for his stockbroker’s exam, despite the slim odds that he will rise to the top of his class and secure a six-figure income. Were this entirely a work of fiction, it would be unbelievable. But there it is: Beyond the inevitable creative license, a form of this story happened.

Also, it’s not as if Chris is unaffected by what he endures. He bears his load quietly for the sake of his son, but the strain is all over his face. Smith delivers a wholly convincing performance, capturing Chris’ muted, ever-growing desperation without overselling it. One has to imagine the presence of Smith’s own son gave him all the motivation he needed, but in the end the Fresh Prince is the one who brings it home.

Paradoxically, his performance opens the film to its only major weakness. All the other characters, with the arguable exceptions of his wife and son, are colorless and uninteresting. His fellow brokerage interns, the other homeless people with whom he comes in contact, his landlords, his bosses – all of them are either the faceless gatekeepers of a better life or anonymous, silent fellow travelers. His wife, to name just one example, disappears halfway through and, though she lives in the same city, never reappears in the story.

The Pursuit of Happyness, consequently, becomes entirely about Chris’ specific pursuit. It’s the only thing about the film that doesn’t feel quite right, as if certain peoples’ influences and actions have been downplayed in the narrative, if not omitted entirely. I don’t know that for a fact, incidentally. It only seems as if that might be the case. As a consequence, it feels occasionally like director Gabriele Muccino is trying to manipulate, when he clearly doesn’t need to.

None of that keeps the film from resonating with its audience. As Chris endures trial after trial, the viewer is right there with him. That, of course, would be impossible without such a strong performance from Smith, who continues to make a case for himself as a terrific dramatic actor. He paints a character whose affability masks a fierce intellect and intense drive, a welcome departure from the acerbic, tortured genius one might expect to find in a story like this. Chris is constantly the brightest guy in the room, but this isn’t Good Will Hunting Redux.

Ultimately, The Pursuit of Happyness is exactly as satisfying and stirring as it intends to be. Though the perseverance exhibited by its lead might strain believability for some audience members, I gladly admit to buying it wholesale, with a few caveats. Sure, it’s a little corny in places, and the piles of misery can be stifling, but it’s also an utterly winning underdog story perfectly suited for the holidays.

Glen Baity’s happyness depends on your e-mail. Write him at glen.baity@gmail.com.

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