The Pursuit of Happyness

When I first saw the ads for this movie, my first thought was that an entire generation of school children were going to grow up misspelling "happiness". To my relief, one of the first scenes deals with that very issue, so after that, I was ready to settle back and enjoy the movie. (Well, at least as much as I could with the two annoying teenage girls sitting a few seats down who liked to echo bits of the dialogue. As they jostled and tripped their way out of the theatre, though, one of them dropped and broke her cell phone, in what I like to think was a nice bit of karma. Anyway.)

Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a struggling salesman trying to figure out a way to better support his family. He apparently got roped into the worst sales job ever -- he spent his life savings on the purchase of a small roomful of bone density machines, which he now must sell to recoup his investment. Meanwhile, the manufacturer has long since scampered away, laughing while counting poor Will's hard-earned cash.

Will is a good salesman (come on, tell me you wouldn't want to buy something from Will Smith) but the machines are considered luxuries by most doctors, so he has an uphill battle ahead of him (literally in some cases, since the film is set in San Francisco, and he loses his car early on). His wife Linda must work double shifts as a waitress to try and keep them afloat, but you can see from the beginning that she's near her breaking point. She's played by an almost-unrecognizable Thandie Newton -- granted, I haven't seen her in anything since Mission Impossible II (aka The Bland Remake of Notorious), but she was so painfully thin here I just wanted to buy her some lunch.

Their little boy, also Christopher, is played by Will Smith's real-life son, Jaden, and acting seems to run in the family. It must be easier when the actor playing your father really is your father, but there's still a lovely, tender quality to so many of their scenes, where it's truly just the two of them against the world, and you know they're sticking together no matter what.

Will soon finds himself a single parent, juggling day care, bus schedules, Rubik's cubes, and bone density machines. In fact, he spends a good chunk of the movie chasing bone density machines that have ended up in the wrong hands through various bizarre circumstances. Since each one is worth $250 to him, he runs pretty fast, and once even gets hit by a car because he's so focused on his prize.

Soon, though, Will realizes what he really should be chasing: happiness. He finagles his way into a prestigious (though unpaid) internship program at Dean Witter, still selling bone density machines on the weekends so he and his son can eat.

Now, I don't know if Dean Witter still runs things the same way, but I have to say that this was a pretty sweet deal for them. Every six months, they take on twenty interns, who then fall all over themselves trying to earn the most commissions so they can be the one person who actually starts getting paid. According to the voiceover, the nineteen who fail can't even use their knowledge elsewhere -- I'm guessing because of some sort of nondisclosure clause. So Dean Witter gets twenty full time workers for nothing. Untrained workers at first, of course, but driven, and Dean Witter just gets to sit back and rake in whatever money they make. I guess that's how you build a multi-billion dollar company.

As Will fights his way through the program, the fates seem to conspire against him. Every time he seems to be getting back on solid financial ground, something happens to send them falling back into poverty. It's really pretty amazing sometimes, just how often things go abruptly wrong. There's a striking scene where the two of them end up sleeping on the floor of a men's room in a train station, a desperate, exhausted Will cradling his son's head in his lap, and the hopelessness of it all just soaks into you.

Through it all, Will keeps up a sort of determined optimism -- much of it put on for his son's sake, I'm sure, but it also seems like a way to keep himself going. He doesn't have much help, since his apparent "best friend" won't even pay back the fourteen dollars he borrowed. Though his bosses are generally good sorts, Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer, as well as many other Simpsons characters) as Alan Frakesh, the primary trainer for the interns, treats Will rather like his personal servant, constantly singling him out for coffee runs and various other menial tasks. I'm not sure I could have tolerated all that as well as Will did, and I'm pretty easygoing.

This one gets three and three-quarter idols. I'm usually not one for the "feel good" movies, and this one certainly doesn't take any risks, but Will Smith really does shine in his role. There's a little too much reliance on coincidence -- anyone would think that San Francisco was a town of only a thousand people, given how often the characters' paths cross. And whatever the real Chris Gardner's faults might be, you won't discover them here. But the film hangs together well, and in the end, you don't really mind its weaknesses, since the Smith family makes them so palatable.

First published 12/2006. I guess I hadn't really gotten into the picture habit so much at that point.

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