Jaden and Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness.
The real story of Chris Gardner's life is indeed inspirational. The movie version wants to be inspirational as well, but never quite gets there; instead it flounders in drama that is sometimes overwrought and too melodramatic, despite a fine acting performance by Will Smith in the lead role.
I won't bother with comparing the real story of Gardner's life to the movie's version, if you want to read about the real Gardner, you can do so here.
In the movie, Smith plays Gardner, a Bone Density Scanner Salesmen who's barely making ends meet. One day, a chance encounter with a Stock Broker prompts Gardner to switch careers and try for an internship at Dean Witter. Gardner's wife (Newton), tired of having to work overtime to make ends meet, tells him that she's leaving him and moving to New York, leaving Gardner with their son. After it turns out that the internship is an unpaid one, Gardner and his son are forced into homelessness as he completes the internship that could land him a high-paying job with the firm.
Without a doubt, Smith does a good job with this role and I really wanted his character to succeed. The downside though is that because of the way this movie is written and presented, I didn't want to have to actually sit through the whole depressing portion of the story. After the initial setup, I just wanted it to cut to the end and tell me how he made out with the job. I just wasn't entertained enough to take an interest in everything that was happening in the middle portion of the story.
Gardner's son in the movie is played by Smith's real life son, and he does a good job as well, but I think the movie would have been better with less of him. I was far more interested in whether or not he would succeed at the job than I was with seeing him bond with his son over and over again in some of the movie's most soap-opera like scenes.
I know I said I wouldn't compare the movie to real life, I have to in order to point out one plot point that isn't fully explained in the movie. In real life, the internship actually paid $1,000 a month (and this was 1981 so that isn't quite as bad as it sounds). In the movie the only money Chris earns is by selling the last few Bone Scanners that he owns. And yet somehow he is able, when completely broke, to still pay for daycare for his son. Obviously the movie makers wanted the higher drama of Chris being completely broke for the storyline, but they didn't want to have to deal with Chris not having a place for his son to stay during the day.
If you're a huge fan of Smith's or are just one of those people who needs a box of tissue when watching the Hallmark channel, you'll probably find something to enjoy in this movie. If you really want to be inspired by this story, you're probably better off reading the book version that Gardner co-wrote.
Jaden and Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness.
As Scott said, The Pursuit of Happyness gets pretty sappy. It's a feel good movie that takes a while to get to the payoff. Its outcome is never in doubt (or else they wouldn't have made a movie about the guy) and some of the obstacles that come up seem like convenient plot contrivances. He has to move his bosses car so he misses an important meeting... He gets hit by a car and loses a shoe... A man cuts in line in front of him and his son at the homeless shelter... He seems to be forever chasing down someone who's stolen one of his bone density scanners...
This guy has the worst luck, but you just know that if he perseveres, he'll eventually be rewarded before those end credits roll.
What keeps the whole thing grounded is the wonderful central performance by Will Smith. For my money it is some of the best acting he has done thus far in his celebrated career. He was nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars and the Golden Globes for playing Chris Gardner (He lost both awards to Forest Whitaker for playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland). It received generally favorable reviews and resonated with audiences, becoming Will Smith's sixth consecutive picture to open in the top spot and going on to gross more than 160 million dollars domestic.
What Smith does so well is convey this guy's decency and integrity. He never asks anyone for a handout, works his butt off, and faces adversity head-on. The fact that he is solely responsible for the well-being of his young son adds to his remarkable achievement. Another thing worth noting is the complete lack of any mention of the fact that Chris is a black man. Race is never made an issue of or even brought up for that matter. Chris works hard and is judged on the merits of his personality, drive and unwaveringly diligent work ethic.
I agree that Jaden does good work too. He's a cute kid who says cute things but he isn't annoying as some precocious children are. He also manages to have a natural way of acting in front of the camera. Which isn't at all surprising when you figure that he was born into show business royalty and has been attending red carpet premieres all of his young life. He's no stranger to the spotlight or the cameras. The fact that they are real life father and son certainly adds to the emotional impact of their story.
Which brings us to the big payoff. I'm man enough to admit that they got to me. I had big old tears welling up in my eyes as Chris Gardner does his best to keep from crying in front of his new bosses. He is so happy and relieved. You can see the weight of the world lift off of Will Smith's shoulders. These men have no idea just how much this job means to him. It is one of those instances that is completely manipulative, with the swelling music and all but it really affected me. Someday when Smith gets the AFI's Life Achievement Award that final scene will surely be one of the clips they play.
The Pursuit of Happyness (the titular misspelling comes from a handpainted sign on a door near his son's daycare) is an average movie featuring an above average performance by Will Smith.
Photos © Copyright Columbia Pictures (2006)