Truthfully, there's not too much in the true-life fairy tale of "The Pursuit of Happyness" (intentional misspelling) that you haven't seen before in a bunch of similar, inferior movies. But "Happyness" sticks out because of three very crucial talents - two in front of the camera and one behind it.
The first two are Will and (first-time screen actor) Jaden Smith, the real-life father and son who portray Chris and Christopher Gardener. This true story is of their lives in 1981, when things unexpectedly took a turn for the worst. Chris has never exactly been on the top of his game. "Anytime I got an A on a history test of something," he tells us, "I always felt really excited about all the things that I could become. But I never became any of them."
What he did become was an unsuccessful, self-employed salesman who hopelessly lugs an expensive, heavy XRay machine that doctors don't want to buy. His wife, Linda, (Thandie Newton of "Crash") works double shifts to support them and their son, Christopher.
Before Gardener knows it, everything starts to crumble. His product isn't bringing in any bank, and he fails to meet the demands of Linda to the point where she leaves. He's left with the boy, as well as an increasingly stressful life.
Money problems cause them to lose their apartment, and then their motel room, and soon they're spending nights in homeless shelters or locked in public bathrooms. The only thing Chris has going for him is an internship as a stockbroker, but the catch is that he won't get paid until he gets hired - that is, assuming he does.
The casting of a real life-father and son to play the down-on-their-luck Garderners seems like a class-A act in mushiness, but it surprisingly works very well. It's a sheer joy watching the Smiths together, and their real relationship brings a layer of cuteness and heartbreaking realism to their scenes. Jaden is an adorable up-and-comer to keep an eye on, and Will Smith's performance is especially noteworthy. He makes Chris Gardener an inspirational Everyman that anyone can relate to, but fortunately doesn't take the Hollywood route of portraying him as a perfect saint: One scene shows him literally bursting out of a cab to avoid paying, and it's questionable how responsible he really is with his treatment of his wife. It's a very human performance, and it's a scorcher.
But yes, let's not forget that aforementioned third talent, director Gabriele Muccino. This is only the Italian filmmaker's first English language film, but remember his name. He shoots the scenes with a constantly jerking and probing camera, which adds a certain tension to the pressure we see Chris face. Scenes as simple as Chris rushing to get to work on time are staged with a level of anxiety and suspense unexpectedly greater than most modern thrillers. Muccino knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat with stressful situations you can connect with.
Still, "The Pursuit of Happyness" is slightly too glossy (typical for anything "inspired by a true story"). A totally successful version of this story would have left the audience rethinking the principles of what really is the American dream, as "American Splendor" did. "The Pursuit of Happyness" missed its target there, but it does at least prove that Will Smith does in fact have some serious acting credit and, when the credits rolled, left me with an uplifting feeling of genuine inspiration.
Jason Silverstein is a sophomore at Williamsville North.
The Pursuit of Happyness
3 stars (out of 4)