The Pursuit Of Happyness Review
The Pursuit Of Happyness is a mis-spelled quote from the American Constitution painted on a wall outside a shabby San Fransisco day care centre. This is where Chris Gardner (Will Smith) leaves his five-year-old son, Christopher (Smith's real-life son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) while he and his wife, Linda (Thandie Newton) are trying to scratch out a living. It's the early 1980s and Chris, a self-employed salesman, has unwisely invested his life savings in a truckload of medical scanners that are proving much harder to sell than he imagined. Chris spends his days touring the city's hospitals, trying to hawk his devices to sceptical doctors while Linda works double shifts as a maid and still the bills pile up.
Chris finally sees an opportunity to climb out of the rut when he has a chance meeting with a rich stockbroker, who confides in him that being good with numbers and good with people are more important to his job than background or education. Chris, a born salesman and something of a maths genius, determines to get himself into the business and leave poverty behind. As it happens, a lot of other people have also set their sights on a career in stocks - it's the eighties! - and the best he can get is an internship. An unpaid internship. Sticking it out will mean facing much greater hardship than he has already.
Anchored by a first-rate performance by Will Smith, The Pursuit Of Happyness is the powerful true story of a working man's descent into hell to keep himself afloat, keep his dreams alive and keep his son by his side. It's beautifully made (by Italian director Gabriele Muccino), beautifully acted (by both Smiths and a superb Thandie Netwon) and very emotionally affecting but be warned, it's not something I could accurately describe as entertainment.
After a fun first half hour, which resembles a blue collar Jerry Maguire, life becomes truly unpleasant for Chris and his boy as they face divorce, eviction and worse while Chris clings desperately to his internship. The movie puts Chris through nearly as many trials as God inflicted on Job, one misery and humiliation after another, and Will Smith makes him so easy to empathise with that his ordeal becomes ours. Despite a liberal sprinkling of humour, this is one of the most harrowing movies I've seen in a long time. It left me feeling moved but also wrung out and exhausted. Viewers who go in expecting the cute Will Smith comedy that's being advertised - Hitch & Son if you will - are likely to come out feeling like they've been gut-punched.
I'm not absolutely sure what message, if any, we're supposed to take away from The Pursuit Of Happyness. By mainstream Hollywood standards, it's a shockingly frank exposé of how tough life can be for less well-off Americans and yet it also represents the most positive portrayal of big business, specifically stockbroking, that I've ever seen in a film. Even The Secret Of My Success had bad guy executives - here they're all practically saints. Is the film saying that American society is bad because it's cruel to those at the bottom or that American society is good because it rewards ambition, hard work and tenacity? Seemingly it's saying both but the captions at the end, which explain what happened to the real Chris Gardner (whose autobiography inspired the film), suggest a slant towards the latter. All the same, what Gardner went through is so gruellingly depicted, I don't think this movie will inspire many applications for stockbroking internships.