Yes, you can. You can be a homeless single parent, work your ass off at an unpaid internship, and through sheer determination, brio and the occasional lucky break, become a millionaire. That was Chris Gardner’s journey, and it’s the basis of The Pursuit of Happyness, a Horatio Alger-style light drama adapted from Gardner’s autobiography of the same name.
In the Year of the Rubik’s Cube, 1981, a bright, ambitious young man named Chris Gardner (Will Smith) bottoms out in San Francisco — his wife leaves him, and his job selling a medical gizmo is a debt-magnet. Just as he’s hitting the streets, young son in tow, he snags a coveted internship at Dean Witter Reynolds. Gabriele Muccino’s film dramatizes these few critical months — where a typical day found Gardner lining up at a soup kitchen and schmoozing with Financial District suits.
Gardner, in a voice-over, correctly notes that the Declaration of Independence doesn’t guarantee happiness alongside the inalienable rights of life and liberty. Gardner knows it’s only “the pursuit of happiness” we get, and he wonders if his chase, or anybody else’s, ever can resolve as desired.
But since Pursuit is marked “Hollywood inspirational,” it is the pursuit — or how the race is run for two hours — that really matters. Muccino virtually dismisses the inevitable successful conclusion. No matter; we’re already aglow with how Gardner stood strong, kept his dream in sight and didn’t compromise his essential goodness. That we should all aspire to such ennobling poverty.
Yes, cynics will find Pursuit predictable and cheesy, a story from Oprah’s couch. But for simplistic, heartwarming, good-guy fare, you could do worse. There’s lots of sunny San Francisco vistas, and fluffy-haired young Jaden Smith, Will Smith’s real-life son portraying Gardner’s pre-schooler, couldn’t be more adorable. He bumbles a bit through the trickier emotional scenes, but he understandably enjoys an easy, believable chemistry with his father.
Pursuit never delves beyond the personal to address the significant larger issues that are parts of Gardner’s story — rampant homelessness, meager wages, unaffordable urban housing, inadequate child-care programs for working parents, the collapse of safety nets. A successful social-problem film, too, benefits from emotional gut punches. But Pursuit trades in the light-misery tone of a better television drama, and it racks up more of Gardner’s petty frustrations (I swear, if his medical machine gets stolen one more time!) than scenes that break our heart.
Such films also need actors who can transcend their star qualities to be utterly believable as the wretched soul they’re depicting. Smith’s greatest on-screen assets — his charm, likability and sheen of self-confidence — make it hard to see Gardner the struggling down-and-outer. Yet in the film’s last scene, the real-life Gardner, radiating confidence and prosperity, strides by Smith-as-Gardner, a throwaway moment that somehow resolves the disconnect.