Each year brings its own share of Oscar bait, but it's rare when the bait actually makes it worth taking your chances with the hook. (Okay, so concocting metaphors isn't exactly my thing...)
Chris Gardner (Will Smith) has sunk most of his family's savings into a sales opportunity that hasn't paid off. The product he peddles is a portable bone density scanner, the cost of which makes it a luxury item most doctors think isn't worth the investment. Chris's girlfriend, Linda (Thandie Newton), has been working double shifts at a low-income job in hopes of making ends meet, but they are still months behind on rent and daycare for Christopher (Jaden Smith), their young son. Linda eventually reaches her breaking point and walks out; she wants to take Christopher with her, but Chris refuses to allow it. Father and son are soon evicted from their tiny apartment; they move into a motel, but are thrown out after falling behind on the weekly payments. Chris, who frequently passes through San Francisco's financial district during his sales rounds, applies for an internship program at one of the city's Dean Witter branches. The internship is an unpaid position, but one person from the program will eventually be hired on as a full-time stockbroker, and Chris knows this is an opportunity he simply cannot allow to pass by.
Let's not beat around the bush here--The Pursuit of Happyness, which was inspired by a true story (not that that means anything), is standard feel-good filmmaking; it has everything you'd expect from such a film, and very few surprises. Notice that I didn't say it has no surprises; no, there's nothing groundbreaking when it comes to the particulars of the basic plot or the specifics of the script, but it does have an ace up its sleeve, one which almost overcomes the more rote, mawkish elements of the proceedings. I'm referring to the performance of Will Smith, which (and here's something I never thought I'd find myself typing, especially after having been subjected to I, Robot) in itself is enough to make this film worth seeing.
It's easy to forget that Big Willie is actually a good actor. He was damn fine in Six Degrees of Separation, and his performance in Ali was far better than anyone was expecting (it's just too bad for him he was playing one of the most recognizable, charismatic figures of the past century). But those films--and performances--aren't what initially spring to mind when you hear his name, and I think that's why I was so surprised by his work in The Pursuit of Happyness. Deficiencies in the plotting aren't propped up by visual effects or action, and Smith's oft-seen smart-alecky persona is nowhere to be found. His character is the center of the story, meaning Smith is essentially asked to carry the film without benefit of his usual affectations, and he succeeds.
I think the first thing that struck about Smith's performance was its quiet nature, both literally and figuratively. There are several passages during which Smith (who also co-produced the film) is utterly silent, yet he's able to subtly convey a wealth of emotion. Two scenes illustrate this perfectly. The first comes when Chris and his son, who have been turned away from a homeless shelter, are forced to spend a night in a subway men's room; Chris wedges himself against the door, refusing to allow anyone else in so that his son can sleep, and Smith, using little more than his eyes, allows us to empathize with his anger, love, and determination. Even more effective is Chris's final meeting with the Dean Witter executives. Director Gabriele Muccino (the director of the Italian films The Last Kiss and Remember Me, My Love, who was personally selected by Smith to helm Happyness) simply holds on Smith's face as the execs talk, and it's easily the most emotionally powerful moment in the film, even if you're aware of its inevitability. Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt that Smith is such a likeable person; a film like this only works if the audience wants to see the main character achieve his/her goal, and Smith makes you want to see Gardner succeed from the moment you first meet him.
While we're on the subject of Smith, some may view the casting of his real-life son as his son in the film as another egregious case of Hollywood nepotism, but I think in this case it's quite fitting. Because Christopher (who, thankfully, is written and portrayed more like a real kid and less like your typical precocious movie tyke) is already five years old by the time the story begins, the father-son bond has already become a strong one, and I think the film benefits from the dynamics of the real-life relationship between Smith and his son. If you hit the ground running the way this film does, there's really no time to delve into pre-existing relationships, and the Smiths make us believe that these characters are the centers of one another's worlds. It's an entirely credible relationship, and ends up being one of the film's strongest assets.
Now let's discuss the film's deficiencies. The screenplay gives over to speechifying on a few too many occasions. As I mentioned earlier, there are moments when a feeling or thought is conveyed with a look or gesture, but there are also numerous scenes in which screenwriter Steve Conrad (who also wrote the Nicolas Cage flick The Weatherman) resorts to convention and has the characters spell everything out with trite, heavy-handed dialogue (the scene on the basketball court comes to mind). The film is also a good fifteen minutes too long. We're dealing with a conclusion that's foregone even before the lights go down, so there's really no reason to draw things out. (The midsection in particular would have benefited from some tightening, as it has a tendency to drag.) The story, in its attempt to constantly create obstacles for Gardner, can also be quite repetitive. For example, at one point Gardner loses one of the scanners, only to recover it when he's in dire need of a sale; the same scenario plays out again about forty minutes later, and this verges on overkill. (I doubt the events of the real Gardner's life were quite so serendipitous.) But I think my main complaint about the script is its lack of perspective regarding Gardner's life before the events portrayed in the film. Aside from a brief flashback detailing how he initially became a scanner salesman, we learn nothing about how he found himself in such dire straits. How does a guy this smart end up of the verge of abject poverty? What was he doing before he started selling scanners? Why did the medical training he received in the military not get him anywhere? I wonder if we're simply supposed to infer that race and economic background were the roots of his situation; if that's the case (being expected to make the inference, not the circumstances), I can't help but feel shortchanged.
In the end, Smith's excellent work (as well as that of his son) combines with the more formulaic elements and other flaws to make the overall value of The Pursuit of Happyness a draw. It's by no means the best example of this genre, but it's also far from the worst.
Making Pursuit: An Italian Take on the American Dream (17 minutes) is your average making-of featurette. Behind-the-scenes footage is mixed with interviews with the principals.
Father and Son: On Screen and Off (7 minutes) allows the director and cast to discuss the work of the younger Smith.
The Man Behind the Movie: A Conversation with Chris Gardner (18 minutes), as the title indicates, is an interview with the man whose life inspired the film.
Inside the Rubik's Cube (6 minutes) takes a look at the history and enduring popularity of the plastic puzzle. (In case you were wondering why this is included, the Cube plays an important part in one scene in the film.)
Lastly, there's a presentation of "I Can," a song inspired by (but not featured in) the film. It's not a music video, mind you; the song, which is performed by Bebe Winans and Dave Koz, simply plays over a static menu screen. The song is pretty much what you'd expect from Winans and Koz; if that reads like a warning, rest assured that it is.