From the looks of Will Smith’s downtrodden character in The Pursuit of Happyness, the only place for the capable actor’s career to go is down. Smith plays Chris Gardner, a hangdog salesman of specialized x-ray equipment whose trifling wife Linda (Thandie Newton) abandons him and their five-year-old son Christopher (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) when the family’s financial situation gets tough. Although at the end of his rent-paying rope, Chris takes up a non-paying six-month internship at the Dean Witter brokerage firm in hopes securing a full-time job at the end of his apprenticeship.
This Sisyphean movie, based on a profile on television’s 20/20, succeeds in portraying 1980’s era San Francisco as a deceptively appealing city with a flaky underbelly inhabited by desperate hippies and homeless people. But it’s the picture’s overtly grave tone that makes it about as unentertaining as waiting for a bus that never arrives.
We know that Chris Gardner is an earnest man by the careful way he talks to his son in dark mumbled tones when he tucks him into bed. He’s the droopy guy with a permanent rain cloud following him through every step of existence. Distracting voice-over chapter headings like, “This part of my life is called being stupid” or “This part of my life is called running,” remind us that Will Smith (the actor) actively endorses the idea of a man pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. That the man doing the pulling is a bit of an idiot savant seems to have gone unnoticed.
Chris might be able to solve a Rubik’s Cube–as he does to impress a potential boss–but he comes up short in the common sense department. When his wife leaves him Chris demands that he keep the couple’s child. But days later Chris is arrested for outstanding parking tickets and jailed overnight away from his son. Chris doesn’t have any friends to call, so he’s forced to call on Linda for her assistance.
Chris’ tunnel vision of reality demands that he carry a sewing machine-sized x-ray device to sell to some unsuspecting doctor at one of the hospitals on his route. When Chris pretends with his son that they have traveled through a time machine before sleeping overnight in a public restroom at a subway station, the movie hits a low spot that it never recovers from.
The film’s title comes from a misspelled daycare center sign in Chinatown where Chris takes his son for daily supervision. It is not ironic that Chris gets personally offended enough by the egregious spelling error to ask that it be corrected, while moviegoers are expected to suspend their own grammatical judgments in order to purchase a ticket.
Director Gabrielle Muccino (The Last Kiss) strives but fails to make a message movie about the positive effects of a father-and-son relationship because the parent is untrustworthy. As the protective patriarch, Chris shepherds young Christopher through the hazards of a homeless shelter while going to great pains at Dean Witter to insure his success.
The Pursuit of Happyness, like its title portends, is not about happiness but rather about a search for fiscal responsibility in light of being a single parent. It is a thoroughly depressing and uncomfortable showcase for Will Smith and his real life descendant. If Jaden Christopher Syre Smith outshines his father’s performance, it may be due to the fact that the little boy has the only likable role. MTW