- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

America in the 1980s, the received wisdom goes, saw extremes of immense wealth and shocking poverty. Chris Gardner lived on both sides of that rich-poor gap.

His real-life rags-to-riches story is the basis for “The Pursuit of Happyness,” and if this feel-good tale weren’t based on Mr. Gardner’s best-selling autobiography, it would be dismissed as unbelievable.

The struggling salesman, played by Will Smith, watches admiringly as a well-dressed man parks a red Ferrari. “I’ve got just two questions for you,” the good-natured Chris says. “What do you do, and how do you do it?”

He’s a stockbroker. When Chris says it’s too bad he never went to college, the broker says all he needs is a head for numbers and some people skills.

That chance meeting changes Chris’ life. Barely surviving as the San Francisco rep for an overpriced medical device, Chris risks everything — including his family — for a shot at entering that most select of ‘80s professions. Thus begins his pursuit of “happyness” — the title refers to a misspelled mural at his son’s day care.

Chris becomes a single father when his wife (Thandie Newton, all anger and tears) leaves him, fed up with working double shifts to support the family. That makes his decision to take a six-month unpaid internship at Dean Witter Reynolds even more complicated. Only one of the 20 interns will be hired by the firm. Chris will have to survive half a year on no salary — with no guarantee of a job. At various times jailed, homeless and broke, it’s a wonder he survives.

Will Smith gets through — both the movie and the internship — on charm. “The Pursuit of Happyness” is a ready-made Oscar vehicle for the actor, and he hasn’t squandered his opportunity. In a restrained but affecting performance, he shows how difficult it can be to pursue a dream, no matter how determined you are.

His character’s comfortable chemistry with his 5-year-old son, Christopher, comes as no surprise — the boy is played by Mr. Smith’s real son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith. He may have gotten the job through nepotism, but the boy can act.

“Happyness” has a mixed — but realistic — message. Yes, Chris pulls himself up by his bootstraps. But a handful of shots — as when a convertible full of yuppies obliviously drives by a line of homeless men waiting to get into a shelter — remind us that while the American dream may be a universal desire, it doesn’t always seem universally accessible.

“Happyness” is the English-language debut of director Gabriele Muccino, whose “L’ultimo baccio” was made into “The Last Kiss,” released earlier this year. It’s not quite as accomplished as one might expect.

He and screenwriter Steve Conrad have left too many interesting threads unexplored. For example, the office manager, played by Homer Simpson voicer Dan Castellaneta, seems to have it in for Chris. Does he look down on Chris because of his lack of formal education or because of his race? Or does he simply want to challenge the man? We never find out.

That doesn’t keep “The Pursuit of Happyness” from being one of the season’s most inspiring films, however. If Chris Gardner can sleep in a train station without complaint to pursue his dream, what are the rest of us complaining about?


TITLE: “The Pursuit of Happyness”

RATING: PG-13 (Some language)

CREDITS: Directed by Gabriele Muccino. Written by Steve Conrad based on the book by Chris Gardner with Quincy Troupe.

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonypictures.com/movies/thepursuitofhappyness


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