The Pursuit of Happyness is a working-class horror story in which every support beam upon which Chris Gardner’s (Will Smith) life is built is systematically torn away until what’s left is a penniless man and his young son (Smith progeny Jaden) sleeping in a subway station bathroom, paper towels covering the floor like a blanket, and Chris’s foot propped against the door so no one can enter. Inspired by the real-life Chris’s tale, the film charts its everyman hero’s downward spiral after, having failed to turn a profit selling useless medical equipment and being left by his fed-up wife (Thandie Newton), he and his kid found themselves on San Francisco’s skid row, all while—in a bid to radically improve his situation—Chris participated in an unpaid stockbroker internship at Dean Witter. It’s a tale bursting with genuine uplift, which of course also makes it prime meat for the Hollywood schmaltz machine and director Gabriele Muccino, who predictably milks Chris’s tumultuous fall and rise for every last drop of calculating, teary sentimentality.
Constructed to be the season’s premier feel-good fable about holding on to one’s dreams at any cost, and pushing yourself to the absolute limits to achieve those goals, The Pursuit of Happyness expectedly suffers from Muccino’s overstated handling of the material. Having never met a tender moment he didn’t feel compelled to unnecessarily underline, and still incapable of doing something interesting with his widescreen frame, the Italian filmmaker coats his English-language debut in slush with every heavy-handed edit, super close-up, image of Smith running (err, I mean “pursuing”), and shot that features the Stars and Stripes as a means of elucidating that Chris’s saga is an example of the American Dream at work. Whether or not they’re factually accurate, scenes in which Chris gets his foot in the Dean Witter door by brandishing his eye-opening Rubik’s Cube skills, or aces his subsequent interview while dappled with paint and wearing an undershirt and Member’s Only jacket, feel heavily slathered in stock screenwriting gooiness, an impression only amplified by Andrea Guerra’s soaring score and the accompanying sounds of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
In keeping with its overriding, idealistic faith in the U.S.‘s economic meritocracy, though, the film’s refusal to overtly address the omnipresent racial divide between Chris and his mostly white co-workers and superiors—which instead is tackled via laughably unsubtle incidents like one involving rich Caucasians gaily whooping it up while driving past a homeless shelter line in their shiny sports car—eventually comes off as a disingenuous attempt to avoid introducing narrative complications that might be uneasily resolved amid all the heartstring-tugging conversations between Chris and his cutie-pie son. No such knock, however, can be leveled against Smith, whose performance blatantly and lustily strives for award-consideration largeness and yet, in the barely suppressed anguish and desperation behind the actor’s eyes and miserable tremble of his exhausted body, captures a sense of pride, duty, and fear that radiates authenticity even in the face of Muccino’s pile-driver cloying manipulations.