The Pursuit of Happyness

The year is 1981. The Rubik’s Cube is all the rage. Newly elected President Reagan is on TV talking about the lousy economy and what he plans to do about it. And Chris Gardner has to take his son to a daycare center where they let the kids watch TV all day and where the word “happiness” is misspelled in the window.

That errant “y” is a symbol of all things mediocre and unacceptable in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” a genuinely uplifting and appealing dramedy starring Will Smith as Chris Gardner and his real-life son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith as his little boy. The film was Based on a True Story, yet, as written by Steven Conrad (“The Weather Man”) and directed by Gabriele Muccino (whose excellent “L’Ultimo Bacio” was recently non-excellently remade as “The Last Kiss”), it avoids being heavy-handed or preachy like so many Based on a True Storys. The important life lessons aren’t overdone, nor are the Kleenex moments hammered incessantly.

Chris and his son, Chris Jr., live in San Francisco, initially with Chris’ wife (Thandie Newton), though she isn’t in the picture for very long. Chris thought he’d found a way to make a good living, selling bone-density scanners to doctors and hospitals, but it turns out the devices are expensive and their advantages over x-ray machines not terribly clear. More unfortunately, Chris has to lug one around with him all the time as a sample.

With almost no income being derived from the bone-density scanners, Chris suffers one setback after another, first with his wife, then with his apartment. One of the scanners — which Chris already paid for and must sell to recoup his investment — gets lost. Figuring he’s good with numbers and good with people, he works hard to get into a broker-trainee program with Dean Witter, only to discover it’s an unpaid internship. But if he can excel at that and become a stock broker for real, then maybe things will finally begin to go right.

What “The Pursuit of Happyness” does better than most by-your-bootstraps films is to make us root for the protagonist as if he were our own flesh and blood. Every situation Chris finds himself in could go either way, positive or negative, with no foregone conclusions, no obvious paths the story “has” to take. We see him nearing the end of his rope, still caring deeply for his son, trying to shield him from their complete poverty, spending some nights at a shelter and some nights on the floor of a train station bathroom, and through it all, we honestly WANT him to succeed.

This can be attributed to Will Smith’s famed likableness, of course, and to his refreshingly unaffected performance here. His action-star catchphrases (“Aw, HELL no!”) are absent, and so are the mugging and posturing that have often been part of his more larger-than-life characters. Chris Gardner is nothing more than a decent man — an astonishingly honest, decent man. (Smith’s son, 8-year-old Jaden, shows signs of becoming as charismatic as his old man when he grows up. But can he rap about growing up in West Philly?)

Part of me cringes a little to realize the film seems equate the pursuit of happiness (which Chris often refers to) with the pursuit of money. Chris is unhappy now; he’ll be happy when he starts collecting a paycheck. But I don’t think that’s really the point. Chris doesn’t want to be rich. He just wants to support himself and his son. I don’t think it’s too grossly capitalistic to suggest that it might be a source of happiness to have a place to live other than the train station bathroom.

The film, doggedly optimistic and upbeat, suggests that the American Dream really works sometimes. The fact that Chris is a minority (he’s black, of course, though the film never refers to it) doesn’t hinder him. He is never shown applying for welfare or food stamps, even though he would surely qualify for both. No, instead he just keeps trying. His stamina and determination are amazing, and the film is truly inspiring.

B+ (1 hr., 57 min.; PG-13, one F-word, nothing else.)