The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some language
Running Time: 117 min.

Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellanata, Kurt Fuller
Director: Gabriele Muccino

Screenplay: Steve Conrad
Review published December 25, 2006

Loosely based on the real-life tale of how Chris Gardner tried to make it in the dog-eat-dog world of stock broker, The Pursuit of Happyness is a heartbreaking, yet ultimately rewarding tale of pursuing one's dreams to be someone, even when one's life seems to be crumbling all around.  Set in 1981, Will Smith (Hitch, I Robot) plays the lead role of Gardner, an intelligent man who took a huge financial hit when he invested in a business selling bone density scanners to a mostly unreceptive medical industry.  Poor sales have led to Gardner's constant inability to provide for his family, finally resulting in his wife (Newton, Crash) abandoning him when she can take no more. 

Meanwhile, Gardner gets the opportunity of a lifetime from brokerage Dean Witter, but the program requires an internship of six months with no pay.  With only one intern (out of 20) making it, the odds are against him succeeding, so Chris faces a difficult decision on whether or not to accept and dedicate himself to the program come what may, or continue to find an easier means to provide for himself and his five-year-old son.

I suppose that it wouldn't exactly be much of a movie if, in the end, Gardner weren't successful at achieving some sort of success, so there is a bit of predictability inherent in these sorts of inspirational stories of overcoming life's challenges.  Italian director Gabriele Muccino (Remember Me My Love, One Last Kiss) provides a healthy showcase for characterizations in this character-driven piece, finding the humanity in the story, developing it in a manner that doesn't moralize, and doesn't make the mistake of making anyone at fault for Gardner's lack of career success.  It's so smooth, it almost appears effortless, which is a great testament on Muccino's craftsmanship and ability to let the story take its course without the need to force the issue.

As fine as Muccino is, it's really the performance by Will Smith that makes what would have been a passable film into a very good one, with a performance that, if it doesn't earn him an Oscar nod, should at least push him to the forefront of dramatic lead actors capable of carrying a film on his talent.  While Smith does convince during a few of the film's more emotional moments, where he is truly a marvel comes during the film's subtler moments, where he understates just how distraught he is feeling at the time without the need to state it -- you can readily see in his face the stress and anguish he is experiencing in every scene.  It's his finest work as an actor, and despite the nepotism of casting his real-life son Jaden opposite him, the two do share a fantastic, realistic chemistry on screen that suggests that no other child actor could have been better.

Films that run heavily on emotional content are difficult to recommend to people, as there are, I presume, viewers who become uncomfortable when a movie asks them to feel something for the characters, and even threatens to evoke a tear now and then.  If you're looking for Smith to make you laugh instead of cry, or for there to be some magical, whimsical twist to the story (like In America), you're already not in the proper mindset to enjoy the downbeat, but ultimately uplifting tale that this is. 

The Pursuit of Happyness is a film that allows for proper pacing, timing, and character development.  Perhaps it will be seen as too slow for some audiences in today's short-attention span world, but for those who really relate to this story of one man's desire to make good on his promise, it's truly effective.  Remarkable that such a film never lays the blame for Gardner's inability to be successful on anyone or anything (there is no contrived villain), as many other films to tread the same path have done.  Gardner's race and the difficulty of his upbringing are never, not even once, presented as obstacles.

As a tale of personal self-sacrifice and perseverance, The Pursuit of Happyness a breath of fresh air -- and also one of the best films I've seen this year.

Qwipster's rating

©2006 Vince Leo