Here is an American story, all the better because it is true. Not even Horatio Alger could have dreamed up something this good. It’s the early 1980s, and a young man has bet everything on portable bone scanners that he sells doctor-to-doctor. The endeavor doesn’t go as planned; his wife leaves him and their young son while he’s left with mounting debts. But a chance meeting leads to an internship at major stock brokerage firm with the possibility of a permanent job. Since the position is unpaid, however, he struggles to find enough money to cover rent and his son’s daycare.
It’s horrifying, and I don’t just mean the fate of Chris Gardner (Will Smith), the man whose autobiography is the basis for this film. Those who don’t have any close encounters with poverty or homelessness might be in for a shock. Getting a bed at a shelter, for example, isn’t about clearing a few hurdles but mile-high brick walls. In some cases, spaces are allocated on a day-by-day basis, which means people begin lining up in the morning for a place to sleep at night. It’s not a great system if you have to work or pick up children from school. And navigating San Francisco’s welfare services is just one of the difficulties Chris must overcome before he can reach the promised land of financial security. Along the way, he also gets his things stolen, has his car repossessed, faces rejection in multiple forms, and spends a night in jail, all while elbowing for a salaried job and caring for his kid (Jaden Smith). The only possible way things could get worse is if his son was diagnosed with some terminal disease.
Instead, what I found truly horrifying about this movie was the shameless peddling of the American Dream; this is American mythmaking at its most deceptive, held together by the strongest damn bootstraps ever. If this was just another inspiring film about one man’s triumph over the odds, that would be good and well. But, without condemning Gardner’s personal story, which is every bit as moving as the film takes pains to portray, The Pursuit of Happyness sets itself up for something more. The title alone wants to and does evoke American ideals and the philosophical foundations of the country. For all the turbulence Chris endures on his journey, there’s a cleanliness and precision in the way the movie fits itself within a national narrative, a regular rags-to-riches story wherein the hardworking, persistent hero is held up as the embodiment of the Dream.
You could call this the anti-Grapes of Wrath; the protagonist runs up against the system and wins, never mind that the system is rigged as hell. And here lies the trick. The movie works, insomuch as it does, because we see how screwed up things are – financial penalties weighted towards the lower class, inefficient and unreliable public transportation, unaffordable housing, lack of childcare – and navigating this system is the perfect hero. Chris makes one initial blunder, a bad investment that saddles him with hundreds of boxy bone scanners, but is all but blameless for the remainder of the film. He’s smart, personable, resourceful, ambitious, honest (generally), patient. And he’s a damn good father. It helps that he’s played by a wonderfully understated Smith, who by not drawing attention to himself manages to brighten Chris’s saintly glow.
Perfection, it turns out, is the minimum requirement for making it in America. Woe to those mere mortals who screw things up now and again and who aren’t so upstanding. Too bad for those talentless schmucks who can’t solve Rubik’s Cubes in under a minute or who just want a regular 9-to-5 job. Sorry to the folks who prefer labor protections to exploitative unpaid internships. Good luck, all, with your pursuit of happiness. It worked for Chris Gardner; I’m sure it will work for you.
Prod: Will Smith, Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, James Lassiter, Steve Tisch
Dir: Gabriele Muccino
Writer: Steven Conrad
Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, Dan Castellaneta, James Karen, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fischer
Time: 117 min
Country: United States