“You can’t do that … Never let someone tell you that you can’t do something. Not even me.”
If people think that The Pursuit of Happyness is depressing simply because Will Smith suffers several hardships that you would not wish to visit upon anyone on his way to the top … they probably don’t understand depression.
This film, with its infuriatingly misspelled title (infuriating, that is, until its spelling is justified), is not one that you should do any research into. Any digging will reveal that it’s a pack of lies, and a twee, predictable pack of lies at that. There’s a charm to it, and to Will Smith’s performance, but it doesn’t quite ring true.
Chris Gardner (Will Smith) sells bone density scanners to doctors for a living. Unfortunately these machines are overpriced and relatively useless when compared to X-Rays. Chris’ intolerant wife Linda (Thandie Newton) leaves him when he decides to become a stockbroker. Chris being a manly man, his five year old son Christopher (Jaden Smith) has to “stay” with him at all times – even when Chris becomes homeless because he’s accepted an unpaid internship.
It’s a story about raising yourself up by your bootstraps in the best way known to man: lying through your teeth and never getting caught.
The Pursuit of Happyness is a puff piece for Chris Gardner, dressed up with Hollywood fairy dust to be more cinematic by director Gabrielle Muccino. Gardner had two failed marriages behind him? Make it one, and make his ex-wife a horrible quitter who doesn’t put up any argument about custody. Dean Wittner actually paid a $1,000 a month stipend to their interns? Make it nothing. Chris’ son was only two at the time that all of this happened? Make him five, incredibly cute, and almost entirely oblivious to the perilous situation that his father has placed him in.
In fact, the whole movie simply builds up to the point that Muccino’s camera can bathe Christopher in a heavenly light produced by Chris through nights of hard work. To achieve this end, Chris never sleeps: he has to concentrate on selling the last of his machines and studying for the big internship test. I believe that in an earlier draft Will Smith was set to play T1000, sent from the future to protect Christopher Gardner from evil market forces, all while holding down an unpaid job without a home.
Now I finally understand what people mean when they have almost wholly cynical responses to feel-good movies. Manufacturing the truth out of a true story, featuring a hero who thrives on lies in his day to day life, makes The Pursuit of Happyness feel anything but real. Sometimes Will Smith comes over to narrate, but always in a smug 20/20 way like “Gosh durn I was stupid back in the eighties!” with the epilogue text “Chris Gardner went on to become a multi-millionaire who had a cameo appearance in a movie based ridiculously loosely on his life!” hovering above his head the entire time.
Certainly there’s nothing wrong with a foregone conclusion, but when it’s so foregone that you know that none of the hardships will have any lasting effect on anyone involved, you have to wonder why you bother seeing the hardships. Yes, it’s certainly emotional when Chris finally gets the job after suffering at the hands of Homer Simpson (the leader of the intern program is played by Dan Castellanetta, who here sounds exactly like his blue haired lawyer character from The Simpsons), but did it earn that emotion?
The worst that I can say of a movie when I’m out of it is that I didn’t particularly react to what it was about, but to what it was. The Pursuit of Happyness is a “movie”, and it feels like it. Not once do you get the chance to feel like it’s anything else, or to react to any of the situations within. This movie is a strangely cynical cash grab for compassion on the part of a passably charismatic man who lied his way to the top. Smith’s voiceover and Muccino’s camera talk up Gardner at every turn, but you can’t help but feel that neither he, nor the movie, has earned your praise.