The Pursuit of Happyness, Gabriele Muccino’s feel-good winter film, may be cobbled together from the real-life story of Chris Gardner, but the film itself feels a little stale, a San Francisco retread of Kramer vs. Kramer. Luckily — and I never thought I would be one to say this — the film has superstar Will Smith in its corner.
Smith plays Gardner, a failed salesman with mounting bills and an unsupportive wife (Linda, played by Thandie Newton). Leaps of faith never seem to pay off for the well-meaning soul, whose small household in the Tenderloin district, which also include their five-year-old son, Christopher (Smith’s own son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith), so it’s no surprise that when Chris interviews for an unpaid internship at Dean Witter Reynolds (the film takes place in the early 1980s), Linda leaves the two for a waitressing opportunity in New York.
Of course, things only go from very bad to even worse before they can get better. Gardner and his son are evicted from their apartment, homeless the two run from shelter to shelter while father must shepherd his son to daycare, make cold calls and study. Writer Steven Conrad must work within the confines of Gardner’s real life, which could come off as alternately cloying and redundant. However, he structures his movie in such a way that Pursuit seems aware of its own potential narrative pitfalls, and avoids them. (Oddly, though, the film, frontloaded with Smith’s narration, features very little of it in its second half). Even more difficult is Conrad’s ability to keep the audience engrossed; many know that in real life, Gardner ultimately became a millionaire, so the redemption of Smith’s character seems a foregone conclusion. (Even those unfamiliar with Gardner in real life might suspect that there would be no film if the dark, dark clouds offered no silver lining).
That’s where Smith’s performance comes in. The performance itself — one of dogged determination — is no great challenge, but the spirit with which Smith imbues Gardner’s perseverance is precisely what Pursuit needs to keep on trucking. As one might expect, the chemistry between father and son Smith is believable and precious, too. It might have been a cheat to cast them rather than a professional child actor unrelated to the film’s star, but, hey it works. I do wish Muccino had dwelt a little more on some of the men who did give Gardner his rare breaks, but since this is strictly one man’s story, solid actors like Brian Howe, James Karen and Kurt Fuller will have to let their work speak for itself.
Like I said, I haven’t been a fan of Smith; I have found his performances unskilled and one-noted, sugar-coated by a smarmy persona. Pursuit may not represent anything superlative, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.