One’s ability to enjoy the inspiration lurking beneath “The Pursuit of Happyness” depends on their own familiarity with poverty and struggle. Without that firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to pursue an enviable but distant career or figuring out how to pay a bill on time without enough money, the film can often overbearing and tonally jarring, with as many peaks and plateaus as San Francisco itself. Its a film whose joys depend on your ability to relate with it, where you get more out of it depending how well you can fit into Will Smith’s shoes.
Smith plays Chris Gardner, a real-life father whom found himself unemployed and homeless while taking care of his 4-year-old son, also named Christopher and also played by Smith’s real son, Jaden. While Gardner says that everything is ok, even Jaden can realize the real lies behind Chris Gardner’s eyes as he struggles to keep his family afloat while participating in an unpaid stockbroker internship, a meager role with little-to-no chance of turning into a full-time job. And Gardner’s ability to stay afloat is dependent on his ability to sell bone density scanners, large medical contraptions that are seen by hospitals more as a luxury than a necessity. These responsibilities each require 110% of Gardner’s attention, time that he borrows from himself in the future with no chance of paying back.
The movie hearkens themes from Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can,” both on a storytelling and a music level. Chris’ ambition is reminiscent of Frank Abagnale’s, and this score features fluttering flutes and soft tones that are oh so familiar with Williams score. As upbeat and soothing as it may be, these moments of happiness are tonally jarring with the rest of the film, where the first 20-30 minutes seems like a whimsical adventure while the second and third act feel closer to working class melodrama. Maybe this is meant to echo how Gardner was always trying to keep his son happy even when their situation was at its worst. But it feels more like director Gabriele Muccino doesn’t know what type of movie they want to make.
It is a hard tone to balance, a film that contains humor, inspiration and tragedy, all while being based on a true story. ‘The Pursuit of Happyness” attempts this balance and does a somewhat admirable job, even though the film is ultimately forgettable. But still, there is something truly magical Will Smith in that moment when Chris finds out everything is going to be ok, that his struggle was worthwhile and that the world isn’t just filled of empty promises and shattered ambition. Not much else will stick with you from this movie, but that scene certainly will.