Friday, December 29, 2006


Written by Steve Conrad
Directed by Gabriele Muccino

As the opening shots of THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS establish San Francisco as the setting for this tale of adversity with the Golden Gate Bridge and hordes of people rushing up and down the steep hills to get to their important jobs, I couldn’t help but begin to worry that I was about to be fed Hollywood’s take on what it means to go through hard times. This is after all a Will Smith picture. My anxiety eased up slightly though when the view dropped down from the indistinguishable faces of the swarm to a face that blended in all too well amongst the masses of determined feet. Throughout the opening credits, Italian film director, Gabriele Muccino, drew my attention away from a race I know all too well and ever so subtly forced me to look at what I am accustomed to looking away from, the homeless. And though Smith’s Chris Gardner is currently employed, he is about to face challenge after soul-depleting challenge until he too finds himself amongst the people he turns away from as hurries about his day as a unsuccessful salesman. THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS is a hollowing drama that drags both its protagonist and its audience deeper into despair than either would have expected. It is a relentless assault on the sense of security and entitlement many of us have as supposed functional members of a working society and by the time I left, I knew that I had absolutely nothing to complain about.

Chris Gardner’s story would be nothing more than one man’s pursuit of the American dream if it weren’t for one very important thing. In this case, that thing is actually a very charming, young boy, Chris’ son, Christopher (played by Smith’s real-life son, Jaden). Watching Will and Jaden quibble and endure provides for some endearing screen time but their plight and performances overshadow their off-screen family ties. If Chris fails, he will not only be begging for his food but he will lose the one thing that gives him purpose. Little Christopher’s future depends on whether his father can successfully overcome his horrible misfortune to beat out nineteen other candidates in a competitive internship for thriving brokerage firm, Dean Whitter. Today, the American dream often symbolizes an unhealthy, greedy amassment of unnecessary material goods but Chris’ fight is for the bare essentials. His son deserves a stable home and regular meals. He deserves these and other rudimentary needs in order to have the opportunity to pursue his own dreams. And while I’m certain Chris wouldn’t mind a bigger piece of the proverbial pie, he knows what he needs to survive and by chasing that, he reminds the audience that the American dream should be spread more evenly. It is not a contest to win out miles ahead while the rest clamor for scraps.

Will Smith is by far the most successful black box-office star of his generation, if not of all time. He has broken barriers around the world and yet manages to find himself facing criticism for not addressing any specific racial issues in THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS. However, not verbalizing the unavoidable prejudices a black man must face competing against a room full of white faces in 1981 doesn’t mean it isn’t there. If anything, Smith’s Chris exhibits his intelligence by pushing his understandable racial frustrations aside in order to appease his potential employers. He becomes the showman who gets his foot in the door by making the white folk laugh, all the while knowing he has the goods to surpass all their expectations once he’s in. In one of the film’s many moments of desperation and impending disaster, Chris finds himself sitting in his first interview at Dean Whitter, splattered in dried paint, wearing overalls and no shirt at all. The men who sit opposite him are all white and not amused. When they leer at him, they certainly aren’t just uncomfortable with his appearance; they see his black skin just as plainly. Not focusing on the obvious showcases Muccino’s subtle grace handling Hollywood and allows Chris to be the smartest man in the room. It also allows for Smith to give a performance where he appears as though he might break at any given moment while he wears the knowledge that closing his eyes for even a second is never an option.

Without confirming whether THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS actually concludes with Chris achieving the happiness he works so hard to get, I can say that it deftly humbling and certainly doesn’t allow for the viewer leaving that happy. Smith’s backwards journey towards the top speaks to anyone who has ever struggled to succeed. What it says to them is to ask themselves if they have ever truly suffered and if so, for what? Have you been fighting to make your dreams come true or fighting to beat out the next guy? More importantly, have you ever tried to be happy in exactly the spot you’re standing?

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