There comes a time in every comedic actor’s life when they take a role that will hopefully make audiences forget the trespasses of their pasts. Things like, I don’t know, “rap” songs about Freddy from “Nightmare on Elm Street,” or providing the main character’s voice in one of the worst animated movies of all time, or being upstaged by a giant robot spider in one of the worst movies of all time, period.
Will Smith is one of our most bankable movie stars, switching with little effort between comedy and action. Seeing former cinema clowns like Robin Williams and Tom Hanks clutching sweet, sweet Oscar gold must have lit a fire under his thespian aspirations, for “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Smith’s latest, is far from a laugh riot. Unfortunately for him, it’s also a film with little in the way of dramatic heft or significance.
To get the most obvious question out of the way: yes, “happiness” is misspelled. The reason behind the error doesn’t warrant much elaboration, beyond its tenuous connection to the musings of Chris Gardner (Smith), a salesman specializing in a contraption called a “bone density scanner,” regarding Thomas Jefferson’s famous dictum in the Declaration of Independence. Happiness, however you spell it, has been hard to come by in the Gardner household. Chris hasn’t sold a scanner in a very long time, forcing his wife Linda (a surprisingly haggard Thandie Newton) to take double shifts at the laundromat. Even so, the couple is several months behind on the rent, haven’t paid their taxes, and are barely making the payments for son Christopher’s (Jaden Smith) day care.
The couple’s strained relationship comes to an unpleasant end when Chris loses one of his scanners and, on top of that, decides he wants to try for an unpaid internship at Dean Witter, based solely on the apparent happiness of the people entering and leaving the office. Linda leaves, but give the guy credit; he doesn’t fall for any of this “all you need is love” hippie bullshit. Chris knows that the only way to improve his and Christopher’s lives is to be the one guy selected to become a broker at the end of the internship and make some serious money.
Before he can accomplish this, Chris and Son have to suffer through a series of humiliating setbacks, moving from a fleabag motel to a men’s shelter due to lack of funds and trying to sell his remaining scanners on the weekends. The two even spend one unpleasant evening in a subway restroom. If you’re a parent, these scenes will probably resonate pretty strongly, even if the pair’s allegedly impoverished condition is remarkably…tidy.
Don’t get me wrong, Smith is appropriately grizzled (and his “I, Robot” musculature has been thankfully dialed back), and director Gabriele Muccino ably convinces us of his affection for his little boy (then again, Christopher is played by Smith’s actual son, so there probably wasn’t a great deal of acting going on in that department), but one can’t help feeling “The Pursuit of Happyness” might have been more effective if there was some actual squalor on display. Smith’s suits are always neatly pressed, and neither he nor his son are ever grimy or sickly. Even the bathroom in which they spend a night is remarkably free of filth. Not that sleeping in a shelter is a bed of roses, but amplifying the consequences of failure goes a long way to engaging the audience emotionally. Then again, Muccino isn’t interested in examining the broader issues at stake.
This might cause problems if the family’s financial travails were the result of the Reagan Administration’s social policies and not Chris’ own bad decisions. I mean, for a guy whose nickname as a child was “Ten Gallon Head’ – apparently referring to his massive intellect – and who can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than 30 minutes, he makes a couple of dazzlingly stupid moves. For example:
1. He sinks his (and Linda’s, presumably) life savings into his scheme to sell bone density scanners without even a moment’s concern that relying on commissions from selling medical equipment might not be the soundest fiscal policy for a young couple embarking on their life together.
2. He conveniently forgets to pay some back taxes, leading to their eviction from the hotel. Fine, he didn’t have the money to pay them, but he also was unaware that the IRS can take your money from your checking account without waiting for you to send it in? Money orders, dude.
I always marvel at the unwavering optimism of people in true stories like these. I can think of plenty of folks who would’ve looped a belt over a ceiling beam or (speaking personally) stuck up a few liquor stores after being forced to spend the night in a restroom. From that perspective, and especially to anyone with kids, the film packs some punch. Apart from that, “The Pursuit of Happyness” is emotionally manipulative and way too glossy to really hit home.