The Pursuit Of Happyness

The Pursuit Of Happyness

****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Chris Gardner’s story is what America needs right now, returning, as it does, to the noble words of Thomas Jefferson, albeit misspelt. After the massacre of its native population and the war with England, the United States was reborn as a free society where any man could reach the pinnacle of excellence (and financial security) by sheer hard work – any man except a black man.

This film is set in the Eighties, but feels like history. It might have been a Frank Capra rip off, with Will Smith standing in for James Stewart, or it could have been a tearjerker, with family connections. Although mainstream and expensively marketed, The Pursuit Of Happyness is not a patsy. Hugely complimented by Smith’s performance and kept in line by an intelligent script from Steve Conrad, don’t be fooled by the trailer, or the poster. There is nothing soft about this.

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Gardner is a struggling salesman, which is a surprise – the struggling bit – because he has a natural ease, never gives up and avoids the classic loser pitfalls, such as booze and broads. He is trying to sell scanners to doctors. Perhaps the problem lies with the product. Anyway, he’s not making enough money, the rent is weeks overdue, his wife Linda (Thandie Newton) has had enough and five-year-old Christopher (Jaden Smith) is picking up bad vibes like head lice.

The hell of a fractured marriage is beautifully (horribly) portrayed. Linda feels trapped, working double shifts at the diner, dropping Christopher off with a child minder, where he watches daytime soaps, while Chris endeavors to flog his scanners and stay half way positive. This is San Francisco after flower power has wilted and Reagan’s capitalism is high on the hog. The happiest people in the street, Chris notices, are the dealers down in the financial district and he wants some of that. He’s good with figures; he’s good with people; he can even figure out a Rubik cube. And when he wants something, he pushes hard for it. He’s from Louisiana where struggle comes with the grits.

He signs up for an unpaid internship with a stock broker. They take 20 trainees and, after three months, accept one. For Chris, the only black man on the course, it is a terrifying risk. Linda walks out and goes to her sister’s in New York. Christopher stays with his dad. With no money coming in, every cent counts. The stakes seem impossibly high, as they end up sleeping in public toilets, or at a homeless refuge. At this stage, sentimentality, with hope, has been relegated to the back burner. Tension cuts no slack.

After an early career in music and a successful TV series, Smith made the transition to the big screen in light comedy and action pictures, always emphasising his charm. Now he proves himself to be a true actor. He may do a lot of running in this role, but with determination and conviction he brings Chris to life, warts and all. He is helped by having his own son Jaden at his side, but for all its potential in plucking heart strings, Happyness avoids the Cute Café in favour of a down’n’out dive and you feel that this is Smith’s doing as much as anyone’s.

However, being Hollywood, he weeps on cue at the appropriate moment. Take tissues.

Reviewed on: 07 Jan 2007
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A failed salesman, with a five-year-old son, struggles to stay afloat while learning to be a stock broker in San Francisco in the Eighties.
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