As a classic rags to riches story, The Pursuit of Happyness could easily have slipped into sloppy sentiment. It dances along the edge of that slough nimbly, its lifeline being a sterling performance by Will Smith and a screenplay, based on a true story, that refuses to lapse into clichĆ©. If anything, the filmmakers exercise restraint, an all-too-rare commodity these days.
Smith plays Chris Gardner, a medical equipment salesman who, at the movie's outset, is falling shy"”on his sales, the rent, the daycare payments, you name it. His wife, Linda (Thandie Newton), is pulling double shifts at the dry cleaner, the only thing keeping them in their apartment. Their son, Chris (nicely portrayed by Smith's real-life son Jaden), is the most important thing in his father's life, a point that director Gabriele Muccino makes visually, as the screenplay does verbally.
So when Chris takes the seemingly foolish risk of applying for an unpaid internship at a prestigious stockbrokerage, Linda takes the boy and leaves. His father talks her into letting their son stay with him in San Francisco when Linda leaves for a job in New York. In fact, Chris talks "”and wills "” his way into nearly everything he needs, though events continually conspire to separate him from his goals, his money, his son. Through much of the film, we see him literally on the run, the chase often appearing futile. (Credit Muccino and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael for turning this into something like an action movie, when it might easily have turned too talky.) As Chris at one point emphasizes, the Declaration of Independence says "¯the pursuit of happiness,"¯ not the state itself. At times, the pursuit seems to be all that his life is about. And when father and son wind up spending the night in a subway bathroom, the chase seems hopeless.
Screenwriter Steve Conrad injects enough humor and anger into the prevailing pathos to keep us from feeling only pity for Chris, when admiration for his resourcefulness and resolve is more in order. I'd also cite Andrea Guerra's understated original music and an inventive and meaningful choice of music of the early 1980's, the period of the action, for helping to underscore its shifting moods.
Partly because of the pre-release hoopla, and partly because of the voice-over narration, we're aware that this is, after all, a comedy with the requisite happy ending"”though even here restraint rules the day. The Pursuit of Happyness is rated "PG-13"¯ for language and some tense moments, but I doubt that anything in it would disturb a subteen. In fact, I recommend that parents and children see it together: It's one of the more positive and realistic examples of parental commitment and filial love in recent memory.