Declaration of independence
Will Smith has a film all to himself in this true-life rags-to-riches story
This particular pursuit is standard pull-up-bootstraps fare, and since the arc of these kinds of stories are generally predictable (especially since the real-life version of this one has recently been on 20/20 and Oprah), you can guess how this story of Chris Gardner, homeless single father-turned-millionaire stockbroker, ends.
In the film, we meet Gardner (played by Will Smith) in the early ‘80s, where he’s having trouble making ends meet as a bone-density scanner salesman in the San Francisco Bay Area. He decides to apply for a competitive internship program for stock brokers and, soon after, his wife (Thandie Newton) gets tired of the grind and leaves husband and son (played seamlessly by Smith’s real-life kid, Jaden Smith) to fend for themselves. The six-month internship ends up being unpaid, and as a result father and son slide from apartment to hotel to homeless shelter as Gardner works to improve his and his son’s lot.
The obstacles are nonstop: Bone-density scanners are stolen (more than once), nights are spent in subway stations, all the while motel rent, unpaid parking tickets and past-due taxes suck up what little money Gardner is able to scrape together on weekends.
The nurturing energy Gardner is able to devote to his son in the midst of the crushing circumstances of trying to not just survive, but thrive while living on the unforgiving streets of S.F. is admirable and refreshing. But the major strength of Pursuit of Happyness is the tight focus that’s placed on Smith’s Gardner. The screenplay by Steve Conrad (The Weather Man, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway) almost completely strips away all other characters, making this essentially a one-man show. The race and class inequities one might expect to encounter in a story about a poor black man with only a high school education seeking to break into a largely white workplace make only fleeting appearances here. Instead, the uncommon setting throughout the film is the immediate world of one individual. It’s just one man and his lonely journey to create something from nothing using only the talents with which he was born.
There are a handful of annoying Hollywood bad habits to complain about—the early voiceover is so clunky and intrusive that it nearly kills everything (thankfully it gets phased out)—but in the end, the character of Smith’s Gardner is too strong to deny. Smith is up to the task of alternately portraying Gardner’s fearless grace under pressure and tearfully buckling under the weight of the city. And there is no one there to cheer him on or pick him up.