The Pursuit of Happyness
Columbia Pictures
Directed by Gabriele Muccino
With Will Smith, Thandie Newton, and Jaden Smith
Rated PG-13

Why is the Christmas season the right time for “feel-good” movies? Isn’t this supposed to be the time of year when we’re all feeling good already? Do we really need more feel-good right now? Maybe we do, especially if it comes in the form of The Pursuit of Happyness, with its heart-rending spectacle of a hard-working single dad in the economically ravaged early 1980s. Happyness places him in line at a shelter for the homeless with his adorable five-year-old tyke in tow. Later, dad and son, on an even more desperate night, lock themselves in a subway station bathroom and spread paper towels on the floor to sleep on. It’ll make you feel more than good to merely have a roof over your head and a decent job. Unless, of course, you can’t afford to go to the movies because you’re one of the millions today not much better off.

I swear, homeless organizations could make a killing just standing around outside the multiplex when showings of Happyness let out and asking for donations to help people like Chris Gardner, people who just need a temporary hand to get back on their feet, because this is touching stuff, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by it. You’ll have heard that this is based on Gardner’s true story, and it is, but enough has been changed to make Gardner’s situation even more cinematically pathetic than it really was: The real Gardner’s son was an infant, not an adorable five-year-old (played by Smith’s own son, Jaden, a little charmer in the mold of his dad) who can provide cute kiddie banter and ask heartbreaking kiddie questions (“Did Mom leave because of me?” Sob…), and the high-powered brokerage-house internship that the real Gardner took on, in his attempt to better himself and pull himself and his son up by their bootstraps, actually came with a stipend, and was not totally unpaid, as movie-Gardner’s is.

But these are mere details. Chris’s life is a living hell up there on the screen, but not in any way that’s at all implausible, or that will be at all unrecognizable to anyone who’s struggled in the train wreck of the American economy over the last six years. Thankfully, screenwriter Steve Conrad and director Gabriele Muccino took great pains to squeeze all overt and manipulative sentimentality out of the story before shooting started — Chris’s situation needs no underlining, and by avoiding that, they make it all the more powerful.

But none of it would work without Will Smith. Smith’s charm, which he has used to great effect in everything from sitcoms to action movies, matures here. He’s suddenly the new Tom Hanks, a potent example of that paradox of movie-stardom: He’s an everyman with superstar magnetism. His Chris is not a victim, not someone to be pitied — Smith gives him a fierce determination and self-respect that refuses to even acknowledge the possibility that there is anything pitiable about him. He even gets away with doing some very stupid things not only by admitting outright that he was stupid but by taking responsibility for his own stupidity — it’s a finely drawn shade of characterization, on screenwriter Conrad’s part as well as Smith’s, but it’s not one we often see in the hero of the feel-good movie of the holidays. There’s a smartness and a subtlety to Smith’s performance — to the film as a whole — that becomes cleverer and more satisfying the more you think on it. What looks like mere melodrama on the surface, at first, becomes more dramatically complex and more satisfying the longer you look at it.

Smith suddenly looks like the kind of actor who wins Oscars. And for fans of his, like me, who were ready to see him move on from the idiocies of the likes of Hitch and Bad Boys II, that’s the happyest thing here.

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