March 2007 -- The Pursuit of Happyness. Starring Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fischer, Mark Christopher Lawrence, and Geoff Callan. Screenplay by Steve Conrad. Music by Andrea Guerra. Director of Photography, Phedon Papamichael. Edited by Hughes Winborne. Directed by Gabriele Muccino. (Columbia Pictures, 2006, Color, 116 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13.)
Moviegoers don’t have to wait for Atlas Shrugged to view a riveting drama about the heroics of a business entrepreneur. Actor Will Smith shines in his portrayal of a real-life, self-made investment broker in this emotionally exhausting but ultimately inspiring biopic.
It’s the 1981 recession, and Chris Gardner struggles to make ends meet as a self-employed medical-equipment salesman who has a family to support in San Francisco. With a stack of bone-density scanners gathering dust in his efficiency apartment kitchen, and with wife Linda (Thandie Newton) pulling double shifts at a neighborhood laundry, he can barely pay the bills. Chris spends his days shuttling his five-year-old son, Christopher, to day care (the film’s title refers to Chris’s constantly nagging the owner of the day-care center to correct the word’s spelling on a mural there) and trying to hawk his expensive equipment to doctors and hospitals with shrinking budgets.
Looking for a way out of his dead-end job, Chris spots a well-heeled businessman (Geoff Callan) parking a red Ferrari and quizzes him. “Man, I’ve got two questions for you: What do you do, and how do you do it?” The man informs him he’s a stock broker with the prestigious Dean Witter Reynolds firm and that he’s “good with numbers and people.”
Suddenly, Chris sees his life as it could be. Watching the men and women exiting the brokerage house, he reflects, “They all looked so damned happy to me,” and wonders, “Why couldn’t I look like that?” After impressing one of the senior brokers (Brian Howe) by solving a Rubik’s Cube puzzle during a taxicab ride, Chris applies for a Dean Witter internship program and lands an interview.
Pursuit praises the productive nature of the stock market while regarding government as the parasite.
However, all that Linda can see in Chris’s decision to become a broker is a pipe dream. “Salesman to intern is backwards,” she protests. Unable to handle the stress of the landlord breathing down their necks for back rent, she leaves, forcing Chris to raise their son alone. As if that weren’t enough, on the night before his big interview with Dean Witter, the police show up at his doorstep to arrest him for a pile of unpaid parking tickets.
After spending the night in the police lockup, Chris—disheveled, wearing jeans and a tank-top undershirt—barely makes it to his interview on time. “I could not think of a lie bizarre enough,” he explains awkwardly to his skeptical interviewers. “I just got out of jail for unpaid parking tickets and my wife left me.” One asks him: “What if a man walked in here with no shirt, and I gave him a job?” Chris replies good-naturedly: “He must’ve had on some really nice pants.”
Chris lands a spot in the internship program, not by bluffing his way out of the awkward situation, but through his forthright honesty and sense of humor. However, there’s a catch—the internship is unpaid and will last six months. Even after the program ends, there are no guarantees: only one intern out of twenty will be hired by the firm.
Already having moved with his son into a hotel room to save money, Chris is faced with the dilemma of either trying to provide fully for his son right away or taking the chance that after a half-year he’ll land a salaried position as an investment broker. Figuring that he can make rent and keep Christopher in day care if he can sell just one bone-density scanner a month after work and on weekends, he decides to go for it. (In this regard, the movie takes a little dramatic license: In Chris Gardner’s real life, the internship paid a small stipend each month, and he quit his job selling the scanners when he took the internship; he was not self-employed.)
But his troubles are just starting. When the IRS seizes his checking account for back taxes, Chris and his boy are evicted from their hotel room. With only the clothes on their backs, they are turned out on the streets. But whether sleeping on subways, buses, or in luncheonette booths, Chris never leaves Christopher’s side or reveals a hint of discouragement.
As much as The Pursuit of Happyness is the story of Chris Gardner’s struggle to succeed in the business world, it’s also the story of a father’s love for and commitment to his child. At their lowest point—forced to spend the night sleeping on the floor of a men’s room in a train station—he never lets on to his boy that their state is desperate, even as he’s about to go to pieces. Much like the Roberto Benigni character in 1997’s Life Is Beautiful, Chris conceals the indignity of their situation from his youngster by playing a make-believe game of hiding from cavemen and dinosaurs. The scenes between father and son are among the movie’s most natural, convincing, and genuinely moving, no doubt because of the bond between Will Smith and his real-life son Jaden, who plays Christopher.
At one point, while shooting hoops at a neighborhood playground, Chris realizes the power that an adult’s words can have on a child. He makes a self-effacing quip, telling Christopher not to bother spending too much time working on his game because he himself was never any good at basketball, either. The boy puts down the ball and slumps in resignation. Angry at himself for his own thoughtlessness, Chris counsels his son:
Don’t ever let someone tell you you can’t do something! Not even me!. . . .You got a dream, you gotta protect it! People can’t do something themselves, they wanna tell you that you can’t do it. You want something? Go get it. Period!
What makes this movie ring so true is that Chris Gardner heeds his own advice, even though he seems trapped in an inescapable maze. Constantly down but never out, he refuses to slink away and abandon his dream. His quest becomes a frantic chase: rushing to catch buses, arriving late at sales calls, picking up his son from daycare, tracking down a bone scanner that some hippies stole from him, securing a place to sleep in a homeless shelter. But homelessness is never depicted—or regarded—as more than a transient condition. And Chris Gardner is always in transit: everywhere he goes, he’s running. Indeed, I believe Smith spends more screen time running than Dustin Hoffman did in the 1976 thriller Marathon Man.
Unlike the anti-business messages conveyed by so many of today’s movies, this film depicts the business world as gruelingly tough, but ultimately fair—even liberating. Most refreshing are the scenes showing Chris in the Dean Witter internship program. I cheered to myself as he applied his quick head for numbers, shaving seconds off “cold calls” by not hanging up between phone conversations and by going straight to the top of a company’s contact directory rather than starting at the bottom, as is customary.
In many respects, The Pursuit of Happyness reminded me of business-themed comedies from the 1980s, such as Trading Places and Working Girl, but without the bitter “getting even with the boss” side plots. If anything, the movie extols the productive nature of the stock market while regarding government as the parasite. While talking with a prospect who wants a retirement fund that yields high returns but low taxes, Gardner quips, “So, basically, you don’t want nobody’s hands in your pockets but your own.”
The director captures life ‘when the whole world tells you how small you are, but you see how big you really can be.’
Italian director Gabriele Muccino—best known for his 2001 romantic comedy The Last Kiss—adapts his lighthearted style effortlessly to this somewhat weighty story, his first American film. Meanwhile, director of photography Phedon Papamichael exploits the steep streets of San Francisco and Oakland as a metaphor to capture the ups and downs of Chris’s world. In the Dean Witter offices, Papamichael’s camera moves left-to-right, visually conveying the business world’s virtues of drive, economy, and progression. For his part, Will Smith digs deep into his dramatically demanding role, giving his most forceful performance to date. Is this really the same easy-going guy who starred in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and Men in Black?
As for the real-life Chris Gardner, today he is a multi-millionaire who runs an investment firm in Chicago. Speaking about this stirring, feel-good movie (which, ironically, is at times also one of the bleakest movies I’ve ever seen), Gardner hailed the ability of Smith and director Muccino to capture life “when the whole world tells you how small you are, but you see how big you really can be.”
And big he is. The Pursuit of Happyness is one of the most positive and heroic portraits of a businessman that I’ve ever seen. The choices that Chris Gardner makes under the most trying of circumstances reveal his indomitable, optimistic resolve and character. Smith, who produced as well as starred, first seized upon the idea of making this movie after seeing an ABC “20/20”profile of Gardner. “Chris represents the American Dream,” he remarked. “The promise of America is such a great idea. Nowhere else in the world could a Chris Gardner exist.”
And, I might add, nowhere else in the world could a movie honoring a Chris Gardner exist.