Pursuit of Happyness, The

The real-life source material of “The Pursuit of Happyness” must have been far more interesting and poignant than the screen version, a Hollywood movie that exhibits the worst qualities of middlebrow cinema: It’s earnest, solemn, well-intentioned, inspirational, predictableand dull.

As a star vehicle for the gifted Will Smith, who continues to improve as an actor, “Pursuit of Happyness” is also compromised. Cast against type, Smith gives a valiant performance, but he is constrained by a formulaic narrative and a lush visual style that work against the credibility of the central ideas: Downward mobility and homelessness. But, alas, this is a well-mounted, beautifully (too beautifully) shot Hollywood picture (emphasis on Hollywood), and the industry has never made a decent movie about those pressing socio-economic problems. (See Film Comment).

The first things that come to mind while thinking about Will Smith as a movie star (and he is a bankable star) are self-confidence, speed, good time, upbeat attitude, all the qualities we associate with the American Dream of monetary success and upward mobility. Thus it takes time to adjust to the notion of Smith as a loser, though I perfectly understand his wish to “stretch” as an actor beyond blockbusters and romantic comedies like “Men in Black,” “Bad Boys,” “I, Robot” and “Hitch.”

Set in San Francisco in 1981, “Pursuit of Happyness” tells the story of Chris Gardner (Smith), a bright and talented, but marginally employed salesman. Struggling to make ends meet, Gardner finds himself and his 5-year old son (played by Smith’s real-life son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) evicted from their San Francisco apartment with nowhere to go. No longer able to cope, his wife (played by Thandie Newton) leaves him and moves to New York.

We follow Gardner as his life goes on the skid row, fighting one obstacle after another, until he reaches bottom and is forced to live in a shelter and wash himself and his son in public restrooms. When Gardner lands an internship at a prestigious stock brokerage firm, he and his son endure many hardships, including living in shelters, in pursuit of his dream of a better life for the two of them.

The movie could have easily been titled “Smith Vs. Smith” (to borrow from the 1979 Oscar-winning melodrama, “Kramer Vs. Kramer”) in more sense than one. Similarly to Robert Benton’s picture, in which Dustin Hoffman learns to be a good, devoted father), Smith’s Gardener is the ultimate father; he doesn’t need to learn the duties involved in his parental role because he’s already committed to his son much more than he is to his wife, an aspect of the story that I find interesting.

Also poignant in the film is the priority of social class over race; Smith’s blackness is not the issue. As is known, American movies have steered clear of depicting working class or lower class protagonists, holding that the mass public doesn’t want to see poor and miserable heroes. Downward mobility is even more of stigma, because it runs contrary to the basic tenets of the American Way of Life. Encouraged by our leadersand brainwashed by pop culturewe pretend that falling down or falling from grace don’t exist in American society, ot if they exist, it’s a tremporary phase–until we regain our moral strength and self-assurance.

In 2003, executive producer Mark Clayman, a writer and actor, was one of many Americans who saw a story about Chris Gardner on TV’s 20/20. Reportedly, he was particularly shattered by a scene in which Gardner visited a bathroom at a Bart station, and later discussed how he used to bath his son in the sink of the restroom.

The film’s production company is Escape Artists, whose three partners Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, and Steve Tisch had individually been responsible for such films as “Antwone Fisher,” “American History X,” and the Oscar-winning “Forrest Gump.” Like the first and last of these pictures, “Pursuit of Happyness” wishes to be at once historical and particular and also general and universal, posing the questions of how far a father would go to protect his son and keep him safe. This potentially touching emotional nucleus is used as a premise to tell a contemporary inspirational story, sort of an updated version of Frank Capra’s fables made during the Depression about “little, ordinary men.”

We sympathize completely with Gardner because he is industrious and responsible. His tragedy stems not from faults of his individual personality but from problems ingrained in the broader socio-American system called Capitalism. Rooting for the underdog to climb up and succeed is a recurrent idea in American movies, and I don’t wish to trivialize the moderate achievements of “Pursuit of Happyness” by drawing similarities to another underdog, working class Sylvester Stallone in the first (and best) “Rocky,” the saga of a guy who, despite being completely beaten down, goes on to succeed.

In the press notes, Will Smith is quoted as saying: “From the moment I watched the 20/20 piece, I saw the story as the embodiment of the American Dream. The concept this country is based on the hope that any person armed with their own will and determination can create their situationfrom the lowest of the low to the highest of the high.”

As directed by the Italian filmmaker Gabriele Muccino (who did a better job with “The Last Kiss,” later remade into an American picture), “Pursuit of Happyness” fully embodies Smith’s ideology, though, unfortunately, it’s sentimental rather than emotional, positive rather than realistic, posh and elegant rather than gritty and down and dirty, and boring rather than poignant.