The fact-inspired drama “The Pursuit of Happyness” is more inspirational than creatively inspired — imbued with the kind of uplifting, afterschool-special qualities that can trigger a major toothache. Clearly savoring the chance to work alongside his moppet son, Will Smith is in serious mode as Chris Gardner, whose story is one of perseverance overcoming tremendous hardship. Smith’s heartfelt performance is easy to admire. But the movie’s painfully earnest tone should skew its appeal to the portion of the audience that, admittedly, has catapulted many cloying TV movies into hits, and an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey on her popular talkshow can’t hurt.
Strictly in political terms, the film could hardly be more finely tuned — offering a sympathetic view of those struggling to stay out of poverty as well as a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” message. And in that calculation resides its basic flaw — a nagging sense throughout that we’re being emotionally played.
Deriving its title from a misspelling at the San Francisco daycare center where Gardner parks his son, the narrative unfolds in 1981 as the protagonist’s voiceover narration identifies various chapters in his life. At its core, there’s a grand sense of the American dream in Gardner’s rags-to-riches experience — a guy who found himself homeless and sleeping in subway stations, only to become a multimillionaire. “The Pursuit of Happyness” devotes its two hours entirely to that struggle, wrenching as it often is.
Gardner states at the outset that he didn’t know his own father and was determined not to let that happen with his own children. Unfortunately, he squanders his savings investing in a medical gizmo, driving a wedge between him and his wife (Thandie Newton), who eventually takes flight.
At that point, the film becomes a bit of “Kramer vs. Kramer” meets “Homeless to Harvard,” as single dad Chris endeavors to keep himself and his 5-year-old son, Christopher (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith), afloat financially while pursuing a tantalizing but maddening opportunity: an unpaid internship at brokerage firm Dean Witter Reynolds that offers no promise of employment at the six-month trial’s conclusion.
Along the way, Chris rides an economic roller-coaster, at various points having to sleep in a shelter or, worse, a BART station restroom — cleverly turning the latter ordeal into a game to help his not-fully-understanding boy endure the night. Still, because anyone who has done the slightest research knows this tale is ultimately one of capitalistic triumph (there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise), the building toward that inevitable climax proves a sometimes arduous slog.
The younger Smith is allowed to deliver a natural, childlike performance, though occasionally Gabriele Muccino, the Italian helmer of “The Last Kiss” making his English-language debut, and writer Steven Conrad unhelpfully saddle the tot with big, chewy mouthfuls of dialogue.
For the most part, though, the movie is the elder Smith’s showcase, and he throws his all into the role. Yet while there are occasional flashes of personality — such as the moment when Gardner wows a potential employer (Brian Howe) by mastering a Rubik’s cube — the circumstances restrain him, as the movie operates in a rather narrow emotional range before its eventual payoff. (Gardner, credited as an associate producer, came to the producers’ attention via a “20/20” profile, and only a brief footnote addresses his subsequent accomplishments.)
Technically, pic does a nice job of re-creating the Bay Area a quarter-century ago through music and wardrobe, and Andrea Guerra’s score establishes a properly melancholy tone. In the final accounting, however, “The Pursuit of Happyness” winds up being a little like the determined salesman Mr. Gardner himself: easy to root for, certainly, but not that much fun to spend time with.