Sony // 2006 // 117 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // March 27th, 2007
"And it was at that time that I thought about Thomas Jefferson writing that Declaration of Independence. Him saying that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I thought about how he knew to put the 'pursuit' in there, like no one can actually have happiness. We can only pursue it." -- Christopher Gardner
This isn't a flashy Hollywood story. The Pursuit of Happyness deals with mundane, real-life problems that cause great drama. The journey is extraordinary, but it's as sincere as possible with very little flourish. It's all about bills, taxes, what to do if you're homeless, and working at a job where you call people to ask about money when you have none. There are no sex scenes, no violence; nothing blows up. The Pursuit of Happyness is a real life story about the struggle to get a good job. It manages to also look at the American Dream, the bond between a father and son, and the horror of being homeless. The film got Will Smith (The Legend of Bagger Vance) nominated for an Oscar as well as a Golden Globe for his portrayal of real life hero Chris Gardner, and allowed him to work with his own son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith. It's a moving story, and certainly one of Will Smith's best performances.
Chris Gardner (Smith) is a San Francisco salesman who isn't doing very well in 1981. He's bought into the right to sell overly expensive bone density machines which hospitals and doctors don't seem to want or need. His wife (Thandie Newton, Crash) is through being supportive, and is poised to leave Chris with his son (Jaden Smith). He's got to make a change. Gardner is offered an internship at Dean Witter to become a stock broker, but it doesn't pay anything for six months as he learns the business. He accepts the position, and struggles through as life deals him blow after blow threatening his dream. Yet he never lets go, even when the path leads him to living on the streets of San Francisco.
The story is heartwarming, and it's all about the American Dream. The phrase "the pursuit of happiness" (purposefully misspelled for the title) comes from the Constitution, and if you look around the film you'll see symbols of the promise of America everywhere placed around the sets. The United States has a culture where everyone is told "This is the land of opportunity, and you can be anything you want to be with enough hard work." Yet what do we do when we've done all we can, and the dream seems to be failing? Gardner faced this as he spiraled below poverty while interning at a job managing wealthy people's money. Yet Chris never gives up, and he achieves the elusive American Dream of changing his life by beating every odd to be hired at Dean Witter.
Will Smith wisely pursued this project because it gave him the chance to play small and intimate. As an actor he has a natural, easy charm. He recalls studio-era legend Jimmy Stewart for being the nice, unassuming man next door. Rather than a flashy performance (such as when he took up boxing for Ali), the film requires the acting icon to dull his star quality and play a humble, desperate man. His performance is touching and reserved, and Smith proves his intelligence in playing every beat with the right amount of emotion without ever going too far. He definitely earned the 2006 Academy Award nomination, although he was trumped by Forest Whitaker (who was playing the over-the-top, real-life role of a dictator, since the Academy seems to favor flashy over real). Yet Whitaker didn't have to work with a family member which presents its own challenges for an actor. In The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith's performance is supported by his real-life child. The chemistry between Smith and his son is undeniable, and they make it easy to care about the pair as they fight to sleep anywhere they can find at the film's darkest moments. Their two performances make the film an entertaining and moving inspirational story.
Interestingly enough the producers chose an Italian director named Gabriele Muccino (One Last Kiss) to helm the project. He was handpicked by Will Smith on the basis of his Italian movies, and the gamble of placing a film about America in foreign hands pays off. Muccino keeps things simple, but lovingly moves his camera around the fascinating landscapes of San Francisco's extremes between opulent white collar offices to homeless missions where the desperate gather. He allows everything to be played small with a big heart on the sleeve. Gabriele is helming a major Hollywood production, but he's doing it all with an independent film's spirit. It's a nice touch, and he manages to keep everything in check to make it feel authentic and not as cloying as it could be. Watch for appearances by authentic homeless people cast directly from the streets for the production.
Sony delivers a stunning transfer with a ton of extras. Obviously The Pursuit of Happyness is a big title for the company, it being a family-friendly drama which should sell well across all demographics. They've given the consumer a great DVD. The transfer is solid with accurate colors and nice black levels. For some reason the Verdict was sent the Fullscreen version, but from what I could see there was no problems with digital noise or artifacts. The surround sound mix gives the city sequences a nice texture, and the score sounds great. Extras include four featurettes which look at the director, Will Smith acting with his son, the real Chris Gardner, and the Rubik's Cube that figures prominently in the story. All of these short segments give the viewer a significant peak into the important aspects of the film. There is an audio only presentation of the song "I Can" which was never used in the feature. There is also a full length commentary from Gabriele Muccino who mainly talks about technical production challenges in his broken English. It's a charming track, but without the actors or the real Chris Gardner it seems not as compelling as it could be.
It's hard to swallow The Pursuit of Happyness completely since it seems too reverent of Chris Gardner, and never challenges his perfect grace and nobility in every situation. In contrast, poor Thandie Newton has to play a harpy for her entire performance as his wife who flees for barely any reason other than she's tired of the struggle. The son is always super composed as well, even though the real Chris Garnder admits in one of the extra features his own son threw tantrums and had crying fits on a daily basis. The film reduces characters to stock roles for dramatic purposes, and that betrays the reality of an honest approach. Some will accuse The Pursuit of Happyness of being manipulative, although it does exhibit enough reserve to come by the tearful moments honestly. It achieves what it aspires to be easily, but doesn't push over its goals to become truly daring. The story doesn't do anything we don't expect.
I wish we had more of the office drama and less of the street struggle, but they've chosen to focus on lifestyle more than the mechanics of success. Without conceding to create a villain or any other drama than what real life provides, the two hour running time seems to stretch a little long. The bone density machine sales process is shown in more detail than anything we see in the brokerage office. I don't think the story needed to focus on the failures quite so hard, since we know as an audience this will all have a happy ending. I found myself wondering more about what made the man a success, and wanted to view his winning during the internship as much as having to watch the hardships. The "don't give up on your dreams" message is too simple to not let us see more complex contrasting themes and details. It's almost all too simple to be this drawn out. It's an effective movie, but nobody will accuse it of being innovative. Will Smith saves it from its own shortcomings, but they are easy to recognize.
The Pursuit of Happyness is a quiet reserved inspirational story, anchored by a small effective acting job from Will Smith. It's entertaining, and it achieves all that it sets out to do. Although Chris Gardner's story is idealized by Hollywood, it remains an impactful lesson in how one man's refusal to let go led him to success. It is a great picture for family viewing, and it 's a moving look at a father and son. Adding Smith's real life child was the right thing to do, and it all comes off well. Will Smith proves he's capable of playing a real guy with wit and charm. His reserved performance raises the movie far above it's simple tearjerker aspirations, and gives it an intelligence. Sony provides a solid DVD with a great transfer and plenty of extras. I'd seek out the widescreen edition, and settle down for a solid melodrama about the American Dream. It works like gangbusters on a personal level, and I found myself grateful for all of my own blessings as a result.
Guilty of being an inspiration, The Pursuit of Happyness is well worth seeking out when you need a little encouragement.
Review content copyright © 2007 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Making of Featurette Concentrating on the Director
* Featurette "Father and Son"
* A Conversation with Chris Gardner
* Featurette "Inside the Rubik's Cube"
* "I Can" Song
* Commentary by Director Gabrilele Muccino