There is a part of The Pursuit of Happyness -- most of the last third, honestly -- that is just plain too bleak. It's taking an eternally optimistic guy just trying to scrape by and doing more than making things rough for him; it's kicking him in the crotch and spitting on him, and maybe humiliating him a little bit. It's some really holiday good cheer.
Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is one of those downtrodden guys for whom better times are always just around the next corner. He's a salesman, hawking some over-priced and under-used equipment to hospitals around San Francisco. What Chris wants is a better life for his family, his angry and overworked wife Linda (Thandie Newton, unconvincing with her brittle, bottled up range) and his delectably cute five-year-old Christopher (played by Smith's real-life son Jaden -- or, as he's loftily billed in the credits, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith). And the idea he latches onto, because it does not require a college education, but could still pay off big time, is to become a stockbroker.
So Chris pursues his happiness (or happyness) through a six month unpaid internship program with 19 others, in the hopes that, at the end, he will be the one chosen for employment. He is doggedly determined, as his wife takes off and leaves him to care for their son alone, as his bank account dwindles to nothing, as his prospects for where he and his son will sleep that night begin to get awfully fuzzy.
It's fortunate that Smith is playing Chris Gardner; as the film is based on a true story, I've got to believe the real-life man had to have extreme amounts of charisma in order to survive the life that he did. But despite Smith's natural and ample charms, Happyness offers increasingly sporadic moments of levity and brightness. Because it's not a Russian melodrama, we can be relatively assured of a brighter outcome -- Gardner won't end up dying of consumption, for instance, and his son won't be sent to a work farm -- but in the mean time, it's really depressing. If you need solace, there isn't much. The 1981 San Francisco setting offers some nostalgic relief, with its retro public transportation ads and Rubik's Cube mania, but even the soundtrack is filled with the most maudlin of classic rock. How much misery, how much worse can things get for this guy, before anything starts to look up?
Between his valiant quest for an improvement of his lot in life, his unwavering devotion to his son, and the misery heaped upon him, it's pretty clear that Gardner is Smith's Oscar-bait role. Happyness does a lot to showcase his non-action/comedy abilities, and in a part this well-suited to him, Smith is indeed great. He's not even always likable -- he sometimes yells at his kid, and he doesn't actually seem to have any friends -- but he always seems real.
But what commonly packages up these unglamorous martyr roles is a film with an overzealous and heavy-handed moral message that leaves little to the imagination. In this case, Italian director Gabriele Muccino and screenwriter Steve Conrad offer both unapologetic sentimentality and a message they are content to have Gardner say, quite explicitly, to his son: "Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something."
It's a perfectly respectable, if simplistic, message, and it does make for a worse-before-it's-better movie for the season, in the vein of It's a Wonderful Life. But I do question its unassailable truth. After all, I think the same message would lead to a very, very different outcome in the hands of, say, Leo Tolstoy.
Let's race to Sausalito!