The first, and possibly the most important lesson than can be learned from Will Smith’s “The Pursuit of Happyness” is to never, ever trust a hippie. Seriously, folks, you’re taking your life into your hands if you hand over something valuable to a hippie. Say, a pencil. Or your last lollipop. I know, they sing songs on street corners about ending wars and making love, and they sure look groovy in their hemp clothes, and yeah, I know that from all outward appearances, they seem very down to Earth and trustworthy. But trust me, and as Chris Gardner will tell you, don’t ever trust a hippie with anything you can’t afford to lose.
But I digress.
“The Pursuit of Happyness” is a movie in pursuit of awards hardware, and from all early indications, it has succeeded. An early Golden Globe nod for the film’s star, Will Smith, has practically guaranteed him, in the least, Oscar consideration. The film itself is not quite worthy of such lofty adoration, although it is quite the feel-good movie, as it was conceived to be from the word “Go”. Set in 1981, Smith plays the real-life Chris Gardner, who went from being homeless with his son to a successful stockbroker. “Pursuit” chronicles Gardner’s life from futilely hustling bone density scanning machines (big, bulky things the size of a chair) to becoming an intern at the Dean Witter stock brokerage before eventually breaking through and achieving success as a broker.
“The Pursuit of Happyness”, as you might have guessed, is very much a sappy drama that pushes all the right buttons and sends the audience away happy. After all, what kind of a “feel-good, inspirational story” would this be if the happy ending wasn’t a given? As the lead, Will Smith shrugs off the shackles of “Bad Boy” lunacy and re-embraces the acting chops he displayed on Michael Mann’s “Ali”, and does it well enough that Yes, if the guy gets nominated for an Oscar, I wouldn’t have any problems giving the bald golden guy to him. Showing a bit of nepotism, Smith’s son in the film is played by his real-life son Jaden Smith, credited as “Jaden Christopher Syre Smith”, which is a bit pretentious, but anyways.
“Happyness” is directed by Gabriele Muccino, an Italian filmmaker making his American debut. Muccino certainly knows how to drill home the film’s motif, especially the first half, which has Chris constantly on the run — literally. To and fro from his salesman appointments, chasing thieving hippies, and outrunning a cab fare. The man is constantly on the move, constantly pursuing something, or someone. Get it? Well don’t worry, if you missed it the first 50 times, you’ll have plenty of chances to “get” it eventually. It’s a good thing Will Smith is in shape. Or if he wasn’t, he’d certainly be in one by the end of the film.
But of course Gardner’s rise isn’t an easy one, because frankly, that would be boring, and “Happyness” has two hours to fill. There are obstacles, including Thandie Newton as Chris’ wife, whose faith in him completely evaporates when he returns home with two bone density scanners after having left with just one earlier in the morning. At the Dean Witter internship, Chris’ boss (Dan Castellaneta, Homer Simpson himself) practices not-so-subtle racism, sending Chris on donut and coffee errands. Luckily for Chris, there are helping hands along the way, including Brian Howe as a Dean Witter executive impressed by Chris’ ability to solve a Rubik’s Cube (the Tickle Me Elmo of its).
The film is unquestionably a very predictable affair, with cinema-manufactured conflicts that may or may not have existed in real life substituting for obstacles. But there is a sequence, about seventy minutes in, when Will Smith earns his paycheck and quite possibly his Oscar nomination. With the IRS having cleaned out his bank account, Chris’ desperation hits overdrive, and he is forced to run around town (again with the running) hoping to sell his last bone density scanner. It is a task that becomes impossible when, in a brief 30-second scene, Chris is unable to demonstrate the machine to a potential client because the machine is damaged. That scene alone, and the way it is played with pitch-perfect precision by Will Smith, makes “The Pursuit of Happyness” worthwhile.
Gabriele Muccino (director) / Steve Conrad (screenplay)
CAST: Will Smith …. Chris Gardner
Jaden Smith …. Christopher
Thandie Newton …. Linda
Brian Howe …. Jay Twistle
James Karen …. Martin Frohm
Dan Castellaneta …. Alan Frakesh
Kurt Fuller …. Walter Ribbon