December 14, 2006

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The Pursuit of Happyness (PG-13)
Will Smith and his actual son Jaden act the heck out of roles as a down-and-out father and child in The Pursuit of Happyness, an inspirational movie thatís actually sort of inspiring.

I know, shocking. Most dramas featuring a one-man-trying-to-reach-his-dreams storyline leave me with a greasy, queasy feeling, as though Iíd just eaten one too many egg rolls. In The Pursuit of Happyness, the Smiths remain rather genuine throughout ó perhaps because of the natural father/son chemistry, perhaps because the movie doesnít hide or sugar-coat economic hardship.

And thereís a lot of economic hardship here. Chris Gardner (Smith) is awash in economic hardship. Itís the early 1980s in San Francisco and he knows all about the financial problems that President Reagan says in a televised speech are plaguing the nation. Heís sunk all his familyís money into purchasing portable bone density scanners which he then tries to sell to doctors. Heís able to sell some through his own persistence but not enough to keep the wolves of overdue taxes, back rent and unpaid parking tickets from the door. His wife Linda (Thandie Newton) has been made brittle and desperate by too many unfulfilled promises and worn out by her constant double shifts as a hotel maid. The family is barely able to pay for the crummy daycare where they send their 4-year-old son Christopher (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) and where, so he tells them, the kids spend their days watching Bonanza and Fantasy Island.

A chance encounter with a man getting out of a flashy red car in the cityís financial district suggests to Chris a way out of these troubles. The man says he is a stock broker. Chris asks if you need college for that; the man tells him that all you need is to be good with math and good with people. Chris, as it turns out, is good with both and with the kind of dogged persuasion needed to get himself an interview for an internship at Dean Witter. Heís even good enough with people and persuasion to land himself a slot in the internship even after he shows up to the interview in old, paint-splattered clothes (the result of having spent a night in jail because of all his unpaid parking tickets).

But then he realizes why most of his fellow interns arenít graying single dads but twenty-something kids ó the internship is unpaid. So while the kids probably have parental support to fall back on, Chris has nothing. It is about this time that Linda leaves and he realizes that if he takes this internship heíll be living for months with no income but all the responsibilities of caring for his son.

The progression of his internship is enough to scare anyone into taking an extra full time job. He has some amount of money from the machines and he keeps trying to sell them on the weekends. But every time he gets enough money to pay for one thing (rent), he realizes he has another huge bill (taxes). A far more dedicated worker than his colleagues (he avoids water so he wonít have to take bathroom breaks), he has to leave by 4 p.m. ó where they can stay until 7 p.m. ó because he has to pick up his son and dash to a homeless shelter in time to get a room. Yes, a shelter, and for what little comfort it offers it comes with a far greater amount of hardship. (Imagine trying to look upwardly mobile while carting around all of your worldly belongings, for example).

This movie should have the treacle of a Lifetime made-for-TV rerun but somehow, miraculously, the Smiths and a refreshingly unsentimental story make it feel like a grownup, not at all syrupy drama. Few things on television or in the movies deal with economic hardship as directly as this movie does. The great fable of our nation is that through education you can make yourself achieve greater things. And yet, for all but the upper-middle-class childless 18-year-old, the road to education is filled with barriers. Even the cost-free education of a six-month internship has a price tag that most people would be unable to pay. At times, even Chrisí actions feel like one gamble too many. Though we understand that dropping out of the internship to take a minimum wage or slightly higher job would not serve his family in the long run, he at times seems too close to the edge, to losing his son to child welfare or to physical danger. Chris is as pull-yourself-up-by-the-boot-straps a guy as you are likely to find and yet the means of pulling are very nearly out of his grasp.

Smith captures the desperation of this situation perfectly. We feel his frustration every time a turn of bad luck or an unexpected problem throws him back. Though his character rarely breaks into tears, we feel the tears there all the time, as though it is taking all of Chrisí willpower to maintain the faÁade of a ďnormalĒ person. Dealing with this kind of tense existence shows on Smithís face and in the way his character interacts with his son. The boy still has a kidís enthusiasm and general happiness (the y, by the way, is what happens when you canít afford a decent daycare) but his dadís stress and the absence of his mother are wearing at him too. In a way that perhaps you just canít fake, Smith and Smith take on trouble and stress together with a kind of interplay in gesture and expression that feels so natural that even if you didnít know they were related youíd assume it.

Inspiration and good acting too? Must be some kind of holiday miracle. B+

Rated PG-13 for some language. Directed by Gabriele Muccino and written by Steven Conrad,The Pursuit of Happyness is about two hours long and will be distributed in wide release by Sony Pictures on Friday, Dec. 15.

ó Amy Diaz