- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 16, 2006

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the entertainment lives of families, provides reviews of the latest movies from a parenting perspective. For more reviews, click on commonsensemedia.org.

‘The Pursuit of Happyness’

Rating: PG-13 for some language.

Common Sense Media: On. For ages 12 and older.

*** (out of five stars)

Running time: 117 minutes

Common Sense review: Jaden Christopher Syre Smith is adorable. In “The Pursuit of Happyness,” he delivers an endearing performance: He scrunches up his face, tells knock-knock jokes, and earnestly declares love for his beleaguered fictional father (played by real-life dad Will Smith).

Unfortunately, young Jaden’s very good work can’t quite save the film’s sentimental, simplistic structure. Set in 1981 San Francisco, “Pursuit” begins as Chris and his wife, Linda (Thandie Newton), are having troubles. She works double shifts doing hotel laundry; he’s trying to sell specialty medical machines that, as Chris admits in voiceover, are too expensive for most doctors to buy.

When Linda abandons the family, Chris remains determined. He spends six months working in an unpaid internship at Dean Witter, dead set on becoming a stock broker. As he studies and scrapes by, barely earning enough each week to pay for meals, Chris is sure he’s going to make it.

You know he’s going to make it, too, because “Pursuit” is based on the story of the real Chris Gardner, who ended up with his own brokerage firm, which he eventually sold for millions. Perhaps the film’s adherence to his point of view explains the scant attention paid to Linda’s perspective: She looks only selfish and sad, while Chris looks noble, even during his occasional outbursts.

It’s useful for Chris’ rather Reaganite worldview that the film doesn’t deal with racism, on either institutional or individual levels. Instead, “Pursuit of Happyness” insists that all opportunities are available to everyone, regardless of class, education or color. Chris repeatedly demonstrates a winning quickness and self-deprecating wit — the movie, too often slow-moving, isn’t nearly as smart.

Common Sense note: Parents need to know that Mr. Smith will draw children to this movie, but it’s not an action flick or slapstick comedy — it’s an inspirational, but often emotionally wrenching, story. It includes some very sad scenes between family members, as well as a couple of emotionally scary ones. If your child is in a “clingy” stage, this might upset him or her. There’s a very brief allusion to the mixed effects of classism and racism on the son. The father’s frustration sometimes leads to tears and angry language.

Families can discuss the appeal of rags-to-riches tales. Why are they considered good material for movies? How close do you think the movie version is to the true story? Families also can talk about the risks that Chris takes to provide a “better life” for his son. How does the movie show that little Christopher is both scared of having no place to sleep, but also utterly trusting of his dad? Is it OK that Chris tells a white lie in front of his son to get a job? How does the film portray the decision by Christopher’s mother to leave him? From whose point of view do you see this choice?

Sexual content: Christopher’s mother appears briefly in her bra and panties while changing into her work uniform.

Language alert: An extreme expletive is written as graffiti on a wall, noted and spoken by father and son; several uses of tamer expletives.

Violence alert: Parents’ loud argument worries their son; Chris is hit by a car, leaving his face bruised and clothes bedraggled; father yells at son for crying, frightening him into obedience; Chris starts to fight a man in line at a shelter, frightening his son, who cries.

Social-behavior alert: Mom smokes cigarettes several times.

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