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Heart and Soul Will Smith gives his all to role as downtrodden dad struggling to make ends meet

Will Smith is probably the most lovable American actor in American movies.

In fact, if it came down to a charm-off with Tom Hanks, I think Smith would win. Hanks, after all, has a bit of undisguised edge -- sometimes comic, sometimes political -- that intentionally troubles the waters.

There is no edge in Smith that his performing excellence and intense lovability can't melt. You're on his side the minute he walks onscreen. Whatever he might do that's dicey, you'll try to excuse.

He is -- like Hanks -- our surrogate. He's what we think we'd all be if we were good-looking and had an apparently limitless supply of charm and good cheer.

That's why "The Pursuit of Happyness" (the misspelling is explained early on in the film) would almost certainly never have been made without him. That's why, as it is, it is a very tough movie to sit through -- a harrowingly frank portrait of just how close the working class can be to homelessness.

One minute, he plays a salesman going from doctor's office to doctor's office trying to peddle a "bone density scanner" on a shoeshine and a smile. The next, he's sleeping on the floor of a subway men's room with his son. If your heart doesn't break during this movie, you probably don't have one.

It will, for sure, take a beating here, if you've got one. A man's simple elemental love for his son is put to an inhuman test.

And Smith's mounting desperation comes at us, both barrels. Every bit of his considerable talent is involved. It is no small addition that his real son Jaden plays his 7-year-old son in the movie. Smith WANTED this movie to rock your holiday assumptions, and it does.

The irony -- and the reason the story was made into a movie -- is that while he was homeless, the very real Chris Gardner was also interning as a stockbroker at Dean Witter in San Francisco. He was just one guy in a large intern program that would, at its conclusion, only hire one person full time.

No matter what the misery, there is a certain happy ending in the offing. And because Gardner himself has publicized this movie with Smith (as has Gardner's now-grown son) you always know that happy ending, in life, actually came to pass.

If not, the movie might have been unbearable.

I admire this movie enormously. We Americans tend to take so much for granted that we don't realize how close so many of us are to falling down to the bottom.

The film takes place in 1981 during the Reagan presidency, when wealth was supposed to trickle down to the bottom. To the degree that it does have a happy ending, it could almost be an illustration of the Gipper's promises.

If, that is, you didn't long remember the frenzy of a man standing in line with his son at a homeless shelter hoping that he'd gotten there in time to give his son one of the few available beds for the night.

We watch Gardner -- played by this immensely sympathetic actor -- fall painfully down the ladder rung by rung. His wife -- disgusted by uncertainty -- leaves him with his son and goes back east to work in her brother's cafe. He's evicted when he can't pay the rent -- not once, but twice. He can't sell his machines (which most doctors find needless luxuries).

It is, almost certainly, the noblest film opening Friday in the first Friday of this year's holiday onslaught. Also opening are "Charlotte's Web," the big, partly animated adaptation of E. B. White's children's classic with voices by Julia Roberts, Robert Redford and Oprah Winfrey and "Eragon," the splashy new dragon fantasy with Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich.

Next week and Christmas week? Be forewarned. If you ever go to the movies at all, you'll almost certainly be braving the multiplex this season.

So here is this ultra-American fable of salvation from a life of harrowing downward mobility. Seldom has a happy ending been more satisfying.

It must be said, of course, that Italian director Gabriele Muccino ("The Last Kiss," remade in America with Zach Braff) stacks the deck dramatically. At no point in this movie are we given to understand, for a second, that his superiors at Dean Witter might very well have been rooting for the success of this struggling American Dreamer. And you know in your heart some of them must have been.

It's an important film -- a statement by its star about the society he lives in and has no intention of ignoring.

A good man, Will Smith. Whatever prizes and statues anyone wants to give him are fine with me. They've gone to far worse places.

I admired his film.

In truth, I can't say I found it an easy one to watch.

jsimon@buffnews.com

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>Movie Review

The Pursuit of Happyness
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Rated: PG-13

Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton and Dan Castellanata in Gabriele Muccino's adaptation of a true story of a San Francisco man who was homeless with his young son while interning as a stockbroker at Dean Witter. Opening Friday in area theaters.

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