Among the inalienable rights promised in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, happiness is the only one not guaranteed. We are theoretically assured of life and liberty, but happiness we are left to pursue on our own. "The Pursuit of Happyness," a routine domestic drama starring Will Smith, is the story of one man's unwavering pursuit for a better life (and presumably happiness with an "i") against long odds.
The movie is "inspired by a true story," that of Chris Gardner, who was among San Francisco's working homeless in the early '80s and managed to pull himself and his young son up by the bootstraps. "Inspired by" is an interesting phrase because the movie is more inspiring than inspired. The man's struggles are emotionally engaging, but dramatically it lacks the layering of a "Kramer vs. Kramer," which it superficially resembles.
This is a much lower-key performance than we're used to seeing from Smith, and he pulls it off admirably. He plays the fictionalized Gardner as an intelligent, energetic guy who can't catch a break. In fact, in the sluggish Bay Area economy of 1981, he's losing ground. He's invested his family's money in a load of cutting-edge bone-density scanners that, unfortunately for him, provide a slightly better image than an X-ray at twice the cost.
Though the subject matter is serious, the film itself is rather slight, and it relies on the actor to give it any energy. Even in a more modest register, Smith is a very appealing leading man, and he makes Gardner's plight compelling.
Running from doctor's office to hospital peddling his scanners, we see Chris' plentiful people skills at work. Still, there's not enough money coming in, and his wife, Linda (Thandie Newton), who's been working double shifts in a laundry, leaves him to care alone for their 5-year-old son, Christopher (played by Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith's son, 7-year-old Jaden Christopher Syre Smith).
With his finances at less than zero, Chris embarks on an unpaid six-month internship at the end of which one of 20 hopefuls will land a job as a stockbroker. Staying one step ahead of the taxman and moving from apartment to motel to shelter to subway station, Chris is a model of persistence as he clings to his dream.
The most effective aspect of the film is the relationship between father and son. It's a love story in the purest sense as Chris tries to shield Christopher from the hardships they face, and it's instances like this that makes you think nepotism can be a good thing.
The younger Smith, who reportedly auditioned for the part, is precocious but not annoyingly so. He's inherited his parents' good looks and has impeccable comic timing, enlivening the gloomier stretches of the story.
Steve Conrad wrote the screenplay after executive producer Mark Clayman saw a "20/20" story on the real-life Gardner, and he litters the movie Gardner's path with nonstop obstacles, many of which are so improbable they must be true. Italian director Gabriele Muccino (whose film "The Last Kiss" was recently remade with Zach Braff) keeps a low profile, allowing the Smiths to carry the day.
"The Pursuit of Happyness" is an unexceptional film with exceptional performances and, if you're curious, takes its title's quirky spelling from a mural outside Christopher's Chinatown day-care center. There are worse ways to spend the holidays, and, at the least, it will likely make you appreciate your own circumstances.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some language. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. In general release.