I’ll start off by answering the obvious question: Yes, the word “happiness” in the title is misspelled on purpose. However, this is surprisingly not the most interesting thing in a film that could have easily been generic pap. While the film itself is excruciatingly predictable (I bet you can’t guess if the odds are overcome in a heartwarming fashion), it is slick enough that it somehow works in its own limited way. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, which is also the reason there is no way the movie could ever be more than what it is: safe and safely set in the mold of the other uplifting crowd-pleasers that Hollywood drags out every holiday season.
A lot has been made in some circles about Will Smith’s performance in The Pursuit of Happyness. While Smith does a fine job, the entire performance is obviously Oscar bait — change a famous actor’s appearance just a bit (think Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002), but in this case a mustache and some gray hair rather than a fake nose), add some yelling and a lot of crying, and you have your Oscar buzz. And Smith never really comes across as anyone other than Will Smith. He’s still playing the same character he always has, except this time with supposed “power.” At the same time, however, it’s Smith’s onscreen charm that keeps the film working.
Smith plays Chris Gardner (the real Gardner on whom the film is based gets a cameo in the movie’s corny final shot), a family man and struggling salesman. Gardner is suddenly forced to take care of his son (played by Smith’s real-life son Jaden) after his wife (Thandie Newton, in what can only be described as the shrillest performance of the year) leaves them due to their financial troubles. As a result, Gardner takes a competitive internship for the chance to become a stockbroker (which he basically gets because he can solve a Rubik’s cube, a device that was also, oddly enough, used in an old episode of Smith’s TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). Things are complicated as father and son battle through homelessness and a distinct lack of cash flow until the film arrives at its obvious conclusion.
The film itself is as predictable and conventional as one might assume, and there is never any question as to the outcome, though there are some flashes that the movie might have a little bit on its mind. Italian director Gabriele Muccino (Remember Me), in his English-language debut, takes a couple of shots at the Reagan era (there’s a bizarre bit of symbolism involving a Captain America doll lying face down in the street), as well as ’80s excess, as a means of explaining the reasons behind homelessness and social inequality. The approach works until the end of the film, when you learn that the real-life Gardner became rich during the very “me decade” the film indicts and is today a millionaire. Combine this with the idea that “happyness” can only be obtained if you have lots of money (granted, being rich beats homelessness any day) and what you end up with is a film that is at odds with itself. Rated PG-13 for some language.
— reviewed by Justin Souther