Directed by Gabriel Muccino
2 1/2 Stars
Now this is the story all about how Will’s life got flipped, turned upside down, and he’d like to take a minute just sit right there, to tell you how he became…a broke, single father living on the streets? As an actor, Will Smith has come a long way from the posh neighborhood of Bel-Air, starring as down and out single father Chris Gardner in Gabriel Muccino’s new film “The Pursuit of Happyness.” But Smith’s sincere performance can’t quite carry the predictable film, and it ultimately disappoints.
As Gardner, Smith plays a struggling salesman unable to pay the rent or support his family in San Francisco in the early eighties. After his girlfriend Linda (Thandie Newton) walks out, Gardner takes an unpaid internship at stock brokerage firm Dean Witter in hopes of securing a job at the end of six months.
Inspired by a true story, “Happyness,” whose intentionally misspelled title is based on a single flimsy scene, is a standard feel-good film with few twists or turns. Smith literally runs through the movie, lugging around a forty-pound portable bone density scanner, which he tries to sell unsuccessfully. His pace is exhausting, especially since he goes nowhere for the first hour.
Unfortunately for the audience, neither does the movie. Gardner’s incessant bad luck taxes our sympathy and the constant stream of misfortune feels repetitive. With growing debt, he decides to do whatever it takes to become a stockbroker and make lots of money after seeing an associate exit a red sports car in front of Dean Witter. Is that really going to make him happy? As the Fresh Prince would say, pssshh.
While sharing a cab with one of the heads of Dean Witter, Gardner solves the biggest puzzle of the 80s—the Rubik’s cube—and scores the internship. But with no steady income, he and his son go from a shabby apartment to a shabbier hotel to an all-out homeless shelter, and times become really, well, unhappy. Not to worry, though. There’s no question as to how this one ends.
Fortunately, strong performances from Smith and Newton rescue the movie from its hackneyed plot. Newton’s Linda, a hard-hearted realist frustrated by Gardner’s financial failure and enduring optimism, grounds the film in reality. Her anger seethes just below the surface, and Newton skillfully balances her constant rage with appropriate apathy and exhaustion.
Smith surprises with his emotional range and nuanced delivery. In “Happyness,” his signature head roll and suggestive eye brow raise have been replaced by a desperate bearing and deflated expression. To his credit, the 38-year-old actor, who has been on the Hollywood scene for over twenty years, distinguishes himself as a mature talent.
The best part of the movie, unquestionably, is Gardner’s relationship with his son. The love between the two seems real, and it is—Jaden, Smith’s son, plays the role. Jaden delights on camera, and his adoring presence stops Smith from eclipsing the entire film, which he constantly threatens to do.
Bottom Line: “The Pursuit of Happyness” fails to match the talent of its big star. In it, Smith proves that he has what it takes to be a serious actor and that he can do more than just save the world from aliens—twice. If Smith breaks away from his big-budget history and takes on more human roles, he will leave his Fresh Prince persona behind once and for all.
—Reviewer Claire J. Saffitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.