‘Happyness’ is an eye-opener

Reeling it in

Posted: Thursday, January 18, 2007

“The Pursuit of Happyness”

Sony Pictures

1 hour, 56 minutes

In this week’s “Pursuit of Happyness,” Will Smith is Chris Gardner, a down-on-his-luck medical supplies salesman with a family to support and no way to do it. He sells bone density scanners, an item he was unlucky enough to invest his life savings into before realizing that hospitals and doctor’s offices simply didn’t need them.

His wife works double shifts at her job, and Chris struggles to make a few sales a month, but they’re lucky if they can afford food; rent is a luxury, and the best daycare they can find is one that can’t even spell the word “Happiness” on the wall outside.

With the wolf at the door and his relationship hanging on by a thread, Gardner decides to try something risky — he applies for an unpaid internship at Dean Whitter. Unpaid, and with no guarantee of an actual job at the end.

Fed up, his wife leaves and Chris is left to care for his young son on his own. To make matters worse, those financial extravagances that had been neglected by necessity, things like unpaid parking tickets and income taxes, were about to come back to bite. The pair quickly descend from living in cheap apartments, to cheap motels, to finally living nowhere at all.

Good nights are spent at the homeless shelter in a local church — bad nights are spent in the subway station. During the day, it’s Dean Whitter’s grunt work to prove he might be worthy of a job; at night it’s the street.

Ridiculous as it may seem to have stuck with the internship in his circumstances, Gardner had a dream — a dream to break out of the social and economic strata he was trapped in and achieve the American ideal. Not just wealth — to see this movie as simply a rags to riches story is to miss the point. Security is more like what he was seeking; security from poverty, from degradation, from worry. Money could do that for him and, I suppose, in that sense money could buy happiness.

The film is based on a true story, though some events are compressed, dropped or added to serve the plot. Unlike many Hollywood dramas, however, in this case events were often changed because the truth was simply too unlikely or too melodramatic. In the film, Gardner spends a night in jail for unpaid parking tickets. In real life it was 10 days. On the other hand, an unpaid internship sounds better than a $1,000-month one, though the latter is true.

Inaccuracies aside, the film stands out as a study in restraint. In lesser hands, the film easily could have become either maudlin, saccharin or both. Italian director Gabriele Muccino and Will Smith, however, keep the browbeating to a minimum, reining in the pathos inherent in a story like this.

Smith, who often plays it big and broad, does a beautiful job of playing a man who desperately holding on to what he has in order to get something better. Gone is his signature cockiness and playful charm. In its place is a quiet determination. His character sees that what truly separates him and, by extension, his son, from those Wall Street power players isn’t his capabilities or his race, but simply opportunity. Given the opportunity to show he is every bit as able as they are, Gardner refuses to give up no matter what, and Smith plays this pitch perfect.

Particularly poignant is the portrayal of homelessness in our culture of paycheck to paycheck families. This wasn’t a druggie or a drunk or some other brand of irresponsible person — easy to label and justify. No matter how socially conscious we imagine ourselves to be, it’s always simpler to assume that people in desperate circumstances put themselves there through poor choices.

The film is an eye-opener. Grade: A

“The Pursuit of Happyness” is rated PG-13 for language and mature themes.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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