About Will Smith’s estimable talents, there is no doubt. Six Degrees of Separation, Ali … um … the “Parents Just Don’t Understand” video — the man’s got skills to pay the bills, yours and mine and his. That he seldom uses them, or their attendant clout, is dispiriting. This is an actor coming off a streak that includes, in order and with no omissions, Men in Black II, Bad Boys II, I, Robot, Shark Tale, and Hitch. With that barely breathing body of work, he’s single-handedly programming Cinemax and Showtime, but creating a legacy better served by Fresh Prince reruns.
What better path to redemption, then, than a film about, gosh, redemption? The Pursuit of Happyness, the true-life tale of Chris Gardner, who, it can be said without fear of treading into cliché, lived a rags-to-riches life. In the early 1980s, Gardner pounded the San Francisco pavement trying to offload expensive, perhaps even unnecessary medical scanners into which he had sunk his family’s nest egg. As the bank account emptied, so did his home: His child’s mother, broke and fed up, moved out and left him alone with their son, and by 1983, Gardner was sleeping in San Francisco’s Union Square and eating in soup kitchens.
Yet at the same time, Gardner was also interning, gratis, at Dean Witter. Eventually he wound up not only securing a job with the stock brokerage firm but forming his own investment company, which he’s currently in the midst of selling for multi-millions. According to a recent profile of Gardner in the San Francisco Chronicle, “He wears a $10,000 watch on each wrist, a Cartier on the right set to Chicago time, a Roger Dubuis on the left so he always knows what time it is in South Africa,” where he’s looking to make an investment deal. A fresh prince indeed.
Smith loves this guy — or, at the very least, this role, a feel-bad part in a feel-good movie about a man whose life crumbles and collapses bit by agonizing bit till it’s made whole and happy in the final minutes. Smith, playing against his standard type (earnest wiseass talking smack in the back row), shows necessary restraint. Perhaps already aware that he’s serving a healthy dose of corn, Smith also brings welcome buoyancy to the part, racing up and down the streets of San Francisco like a man aware there’s a happy ending just around the next reel. But despite all of that, in the end you’re constantly aware that he’s reminding us of his range: I can grin and frown, see?
The movie, the first English-language film directed by Italian Gabriele Muccino, is too emotionally slick to work, too visually glib to have an impact. It’s a movie that needs grit and heft, but in the end it’s made by people who think dirt is something that’s brought in by the prop department. So instead we get Will Smith with a 1980s ‘fro, a hangdog mustache, and shabby suits — a movie star playing dress-down dress-up. Thandie Newton, as the wife who quits the family when she can no longer take the money woes, is equally unconvincing. In fact, the only actor the audience will buy is young Jaden Christopher Syre Smith in the part of Chris’ son — because he is, in fact, Will Smith’s son, and their scenes together possess an instantly recognizable intimacy that can’t be feigned or forced. There is no denying the tear-jerking power of the scene in a bus station bathroom where the son passes out on his father’s lap as the old man guards the door from interlopers who would disturb their last sanctuary.
That scene is successful largely because it raises the horrible thought of: What if? What if all my dreams are no more than pocket lint? It’s a question that gnaws at you throughout the movie, but be aware: That’s how movies like this get you. They want you out there to imagine yourself up there, an everyman without anything. Yet, The Pursuit of Happyness doesn’t really care about you, only digging deep enough to impart something you already know: that it’s far better to be rich than broke.
Draped in the flag, which flutters in almost every scene to remind us that Gardner’s is the quintessential tale of the American dream come true, it doesn’t get any deeper than the old Berry Gordy song “Money (That’s What I Want).” The film eschews the darkest parts of Gardner’s back story: his abusive stepfather, the mother who did time in prison for trying to burn down the house with the stepfather in it, the years a young Gardner spent bouncing around foster homes. We know nothing of this man, save for the fact that he made a terrible investment that cost him his woman and his apartment — and that two hours later, he’s rich because the end scroll tells us so. Go see this, and you’re just making the wealthy a little wealthier.