Blame Thomas Jefferson and his blasted Bill of Rights. You know the one – it has that bit about how the pursuit of happiness (not happyness, mind, the title’s ‘quirky’ misspelling explained early on and proving far too tedious/cutesy to go into here) is every US citizen’s unalienable right. It’s the American Dream laid out in a handful of words, the inspiration to billions of thrifty boys and girls who strive to become Presidents, astronauts or crack dealers. It’s the reason Chris Gardner, a homeless guy stripped of everything but his love for his son, set out to beat impossible odds in 1981. And it’s why this jumble of social realism and inspirational drama ever got made: as if Hollywood could have resisted grabbing such a triumph-of-the-underdog true story by the tail and swinging it from the rooftops.
You couldn’t make this shit up, Gardner bolting out of bed each day to try and sell a high-density bone scanner (don’t ask) before packing his son off to daycare and racing across town to prove his worth as a stockbrocker in half the time all the other interns have because he has to dash off early to pick up the kid to catch the bus to get to the shelter to bagsy a couple of beds... No, you couldn’t make this shit up. But you sure can milk it, our man foiled in his attempts to revise for his end-of-intern exam by lights-out in the shelter; huddling beneath a lone bulb in a corridor, it plinks and dies.
Relentlessly grim but in a phony, Hollywood kinda way (an invigorating speech is always around the next graffitied corner, Gardner has perfect skin despite a shitty diet and no decent kip), The Pursuit Of Happyness at least boasts a committed turn from Will Smith. Convincing to the core, the erstwhile Fresh Prince digs deep to get to the nitty-gritty truth, drawing on his own childhood spent in poverty to allow us to see past the smart-mouthed recording artist and smart-arsed movie star. Playing opposite real-life son Jaden is also a cute trick, their easy chemistry only sharpening his act. Expect the Academy to take note.
Will Smith goes for broke and pulls it off in an otherwise wearisome drama. The visuals are flat, the narrative flabby. Approach with care.