When his wife (Newton) leaves him, Chris Gardner (Will Smith) has no job, no home and a five year-old son (Jaden Smith) to feed. Salvation may lie in the internship programme at a prestigious San Francisco stockbrokerage — something he must study for while trawling the streets.
Everybody reacts to disappointment in different ways. Some go out and get shit-faced. Others buy a pram, fill it with toys and start throwing. Will Smith, however, makes a series of empty, visually appealing action movies.
We should explain: the disappointment in this case is losing out on Oscar back in 2002. He’d been hotly tipped to scoop the little gold geezer for his turn in Ali, but then along came Denzel Washington’s Training Day and that was that. This glaring oversight on the Academy’s part seemed to crush his spirit — hence the autopilot likes of Bad Boys II; I, Robot; Hitch and Shark Tale. All charming in their own way, but as tests of his capabilities as an actor, a Fresh Prince movie might have been more of a stretch.
Now, though, he’s back on the ‘serious-actor’ horse in The Pursuit Of Happyness, a film that does allow him to grow. In fact, Smith’s Pursuit Of Oscar is a muted affair. There are no grandstanding moments of high emotion, no obvious award-show clips. Smith’s Chris Gardner gets angry, yes. He cries, yes. But the emphasis here is on restraint and interesting choices — in the movie’s climactic moments, when most other actors would holler and bawl for all they’re worth, Smith opts for an understated and virtually wordless reaction, tears tickling his eyes. It works beautifully.
Although the movie Gardner is a man almost entirely without flaws (Thandie Newton, in contrast, labours with a thin ‘bitch-wife’ role), it’s a dream of a part and a heck of a tale — and, albeit with the usual Hollywood liberties, it’s all true. Gardner and his son did sleep in a locked railway station toilet. They did line up at homeless shelters with down-and-outs, scrabbling for a bed for the night — and all while Gardner was working at his internship, with no income and little chance of a job at the end of it.
And all, it seems, because of a line in the Declaration Of Independence that grants every American the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness (don’t worry, pedants, the misspelling of the title is explained early on). Today, Gardner is a multi-millionaire with a best-selling book, but, as the title indicates, this is about the pursuit, and there’s real drama as Gardner pushes himself to breaking point, trying never to let his son (played with no little charm by Smith’s own kid, Jaden) realise the dire extent of their situation.
It’s clear from the off that we’re in rags-to-riches, wish fulfilment territory here, but this doesn’t quite stir like a Capra, or even a modern-day equivalent like Jerry Maguire or Shawshank. That’s partly because director Gabriele Muccino — the Italian helmer of L’Ultimo Bacio (the original version of The Last Kiss) — lends the film a muted autumnal palette which, sadly, dampens emotional engagement, while too much emphasis is placed on an unnecessary voiceover.
Yet, despite its flaws, the movie still warms the heart thanks to Smith, whose natural, irrepressible likeability carries the movie through its more formulaic moments. And if he should wind up on the podium at the Kodak Theatre next year, well… how’s that for an American Dream?
An admirably unsentimental biopic with an excellent central performance, but it doesn’t impact as strongly as it could.