The Pursuit of Happyness Review
By Joe Lozito
Triumph of Will
I'm sure the story of Chris Gardner - a struggling salesman who put himself through a wildly competitive Dean Witter internship while supporting his 5 year-old son - is full of inspiration and hardship, but you'd hardly guess that from "The Pursuit of Happyness", director Gabriele Muccino's going-through-the-motions adaptation of Mr. Gardner's life story. Maybe it's because Will Smith is such a strong screen presence that you feel as though he can handle anything life throws at him, but somehow the film never achieves the stakes necessary to make this a rousing underdog story is wants to be. Still, Mr. Smith's performance as Chris is nearly worth the price of admission.
When the film opens, Chris is attempting to sell off a regrettably large supply of bone density scanners. In the film's best visual motif, Chris is constantly seen lugging these devices from place to place attempting to hock them to doctors even though, as Chris readily admits, they provide only a mild improvement over standard X-rays for twice the price. One day, when Chris passes a smiling stock broker in a flashy car, he gets it in his head to apply for a job at Dean Witter. The "job", however, is an unpaid six-month internship at the end of which there is no guarantee of employment, and Chris is already months late on the rent. Still, through sheer force of Will (Smith, that is), Chris determines to make it happen.
Much of the film's action takes place over the course of those six months, during which the film throws every conceivable obstacle at Chris (divorce, eviction, jail), but writer Steve Conrad ("The Weather Man") never makes the script more than a series of unfortunate events - most of which Chris is able to solve by running really fast from one location to another.
I know "Happyness" (which gets its name from an infuriating misspelling on a Day Care Center's wall) is based on Mr. Gardner's life story, but I have to imagine that much of the story is whitewashed (pun intended since Mr. Gardner's race is never even acknowledged in the film). Many of the scenes at Dean Witter are so completely unbelievable - after running, covered in paint, from a night in jail to an interview, he charms his way into the job - the film takes on the feeling of a fairytale and never achieves that much-needed grounding which would make the inevitable catharsis truly powerful.
Aside from Chris, the other characters in the film are one-dimensional - Thandie Newton in particular struggles to pull of the woman-on-the-verge role, playing Chris' wife Linda as an unsympathetic nag. However, what might have seemed like a bit of stunt-casting actually turns out surprisingly well. Will Smith's real son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, is perfectly endearing as Chris's young son Christopher. The many-named Smith has a natural screen presence, no doubt courtesy of his considerable genes and, though there's not much to the role, young Christopher is played as a real boy (and a surprisingly well-adjusted one considering what his family puts him through).
But this is Will Smith's movie from start to finish and he carries it wonderfully. In fact, his innate charisma and star-power might be what saves "Happyness" from dissolving into treacle. Though it's never clear why Chris and Linda are together, Chris' love for his son is tangible, even without the needlessly explanatory voice-over. It's been clear since 1993's "Six Degrees of Separation" that Mr. Smith has significant talent to match his charm. With "Happyness" he proves it again, now he just needs a stronger movie.