Will Smith suffers so comprehensively at the hands of an uncaring world in The Pursuit of Happyness — his car is towed, his wife abandons him, he’s jailed, and he’s finally kicked out of his apartment — that I half expected, by the final reel, he’d be stricken with consumption, or that his son would be torn apart by wolverines. But, hey, it’s the holidays. And this is a rags-to-riches biopic that’s tailored for maximum inspirational, triumph-against-the-odds potential. It’s based on the life story of Christopher Gardner (Smith), a real can-do type who, according to his official bio, slept with his son at a San Francisco homeless shelter by night while working for Dean Witter Reynolds by day in a training position that paid peanuts (in the film, it’s an unpaid internship).
That’s quite a story, and I have no idea what tack Gardner’s autobiography takes in chronicling it. But this film is interested only in his superhuman tenacity, and his loving relationship with his son (who is played here by Will Smith’s actual son, a cute kid with fuzzy hair and forgiving eyes). His actual experiences as an up-and-comer in big finance are relegated to the background, aside from a big sequence that shows him insinuating his way into a luxury sky box where he meets a group of moneyed 49ers fans, some of whom eventually become clients. (Look, kids — networking! That’s how deals are made!) And surely a black face was still an uncommon sight at Dean Witter in 1981 — but the question of race goes staunchly unaddressed. Mostly, Chris gets slammed again and again with a combination of bad luck and bad timing that has him bouncing back from defeat and humiliation with what you feel is a slowly strengthening resolve. (In fact, his resolve is given so many opportunities to harden that making it all the way to the final-reel pay-off feels a little like an endurance test for the audience.)
Smith is a highly appealing actor, and he brings an openness and naturalism to the role that can be heartbreaking. I also fully enjoyed wallowing in the film’s 80s nostalgia — cinematographer Phedon Papamichael shot with grainy, high-contrast film stock (or perhaps the retro look was amplified in the digital color grade) that evokes the era, and I got a kick out of watching Smith solve a Rubik’s Cube in scenes that tweaked bits of my brain that I haven’t exercised since middle school. But beyond the baldly emotional drama and the period feel, there’s precious little depth in either character or setting — the film lacks the kind of grit and journalistic detail that would make Smith’s struggle feel truthful.
And there is something profoundly dismaying about the unironic conflation of material wealth with real happiness. Smith and director Gabriele Muccino are so good at conveying that sinking feeling of not having enough dollars in your pocket to pay your bills that it’s a little depressing when the film’s conceptual talk of happiness boils down to a final scene that sets Chris down a career path that will finally enable him to buy one of those Ferraris he admires on the streets of San Francisco. Once you realize that happiness, in this film’s world, is so closely tied to cash money, it helps explain its vaguely punitive attitude to the presumably less happy people Chris leaves behind — like his neighbor, Wayne, who is last seen refusing to pay the $14 he owes Chris. Or his wife, Linda (Thandie Newton, in the film’s most thankless role) who abandons him and his son, early on, departing the scene for a dubious job opportunity at some acquaintance’s New York restaurant. She’s never mentioned again, by father or son. (All that’s missing is a “neener neener neener” I-told-you-so-chorus on the soundtrack as the final title cards fill us in on the vast wealth Gardner acquired in subsequent years.) The film’s belief in the ultimate rightness of Chris’s struggle is so complete that it never dares take stock of the wreckage he left behind. That kind of self-awareness is the third dimension that The Pursuit of Happyness lacks.