No trival pursuit: Movie puts the 'I' back in happyness

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 28, 2006

“The Pursuit of Happyness”

Rated: PG-13, for language

Director: Gabriele Muccino

Writer: Steven Conrad

Starring: Will Smith, Dan Castellaneta, Thandie Newton, Kevin West, Jaden Smith

Running length: 117 minutes

Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)

“The Pursuit of Happyness” is a fictionalized account of the true story of Chris Gardner, who pulled himself out of poverty and homelessness in the early 1980s to become a rich man.

In his most serious turn since “Ali,” Will Smith plays Gardner, a family man trying to get his share of the American dream selling portable bone density scanners he’s unwisely sunk the family’s savings into. The scanners aren’t selling as well as expected, and he and stressed-out wife Linda (Thandie Newton) are behind on the rent. Linda is understandably tired of working double shifts doing laundry to keep the family afloat.

Fed up, she leaves San Francisco for a job in New York and Gardner is left to take care of his five-year-old son (played Smith’s real-life son, Jaden).

To the director’s credit, Jaden’s cute card is not overplayed in this movie; he comes across as a sensitive but real kidwho trusts his dad.

A pivotal moment for Gardner occurs when he sees a guy stepping out of an Italian sports car.

“What do you do? And how do you do it?” he asks.

This is the “greed is good” ’80s, and the man is a stockbroker.

In this chance encounter, Gardner learns that the profession requires a proficiency with numbers and people, and not necessarily a college education. The seed for Gardner’s Horatio Alger story is planted.

Gardner is willing to be less than honest and put himself in uncomfortable situations to make himself noticed by the financial fraternity he desperately wants to join. He demonstrates his potential to one brokerage exec during a shared taxi ride by solving a Rubik’s Cube puzzle as if his life depends on it. Perhaps it does.

Chris never loses faith in himself and refuses to let bad luck or bad choices in the past discourage him.

“You got a dream, you got to protect it,” he tells his son. “You want something, go get it.” He guards the sputtering flame that is his own dream with the determination of a freezing man tending a tiny fire made with his last match.

Nothing illustrates Gardner’s determination better than the scene in which he shows up for a crucial interview despite the fact that he looks like hell. He’s gone to the interview directly from jail, forced to spend the night there while his check to cover unpaid parking tickets clears. Gardner refuses to let the likelihood that he’ll be humiliated prevent him from taking this shot.

He charms his way to the internship and begins work. The problem is, he won’t get paid for six months during the training period.

So despite selling the occasional scanner or his own blood when it’s necessary, Gardner and his son end up sleeping in shelters and once, a public bathroom.

The sense of urgency in the movie is palpable and illustrated in the most basic of ways — Gardner running. Running from a taxi driver he’s stiffed; running to make his job interview; running to make an appointment with a potential client; running to rescue a scanner that’s been stolen. In one such scene, he even gets hit by a car and walks around the rest of the day without a shoe. All this sprinting around adds to the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feel of Gardner’s life.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that in the end, Gardner puts the “I” back in happyness (a word that has been misspelled in a mural at his son’s day care center).

In its focus on self-determination and paternal devotion, “The Pursuit of Happyness” is a story worth telling, and Smith does a good job playing Gardner, but it’s not an unqualified home run. Muccino doesn’t cheapen the story by resorting to too much pathos, but I never entirely connected emotionally to these characters. I’m not sure why because when I saw the trailer, I was pretty sure I’d need a big wad of Kleenex for this one. As it turned out, I enjoyed the movie, difficult as it was to watch at times, but the tissues stayed tucked in my bag.

Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or