When we used to live in Rochester, NY, every time we went to the airport we saw these enormous advertisements for a local college. We used to make fun of the seriousness of the school's marketing message -- my favorite sign read "Tenacity. We teach it." which for some reason always put images of Dickensenian orphans in my head. I thought a lot about tenacity, though, as I watched Will Smith's newest film, The Pursuit of Happyness.
The film tells the tale of Chris Gardner (Smith) who gets the opportunity to train as a stockbroker -- in a six-month internship for no salary -- just as his wife abandons him and his five-year-old son, Christopher (played by Smith's seven-year-old son Jaden). Gardner and his son end up homeless and sleeping in subway bathrooms and homeless shelters to survive, but in spite of this, Gardner shows up for his internship every day in his one neatly pressed suit and tie, never revealing the desperation of his situation to his coworkers and supervisors. The film is based on the real-life experiences of stockbroker Chris Gardner. In 1981, Gardner was homeless on the streets with his son; today he's a multi-millionaire. His story was told several years ago on 20/20, and shortly thereafter Hollywood came knocking. If you're looking to pick the film apart looking for political statements, you can find them here, I suppose: The contrast between San Francisco's wealthy and poor, and the capitalistic frenzy of the Dean Witter office where Gardner interns, could be read as a statements about capitalism, the economy and, the virtues of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps. At its core, though, this is not a political film. It's simply a film about one man who refused to give up in spite of having Job-like obstacles hurled in his path at every turn.
As the film opens, Gardner has invested his family's small life savings in a business selling portable bone-density scanners which, as it turns out, are not quite as easy to unload as one might think. The hand-to-mouth existence takes its toll on Gardner's wife, Linda (Thandie Newton), who walks out on her family and moves to New York, leaving Gardner to support his son. Gardner wants to give his son a more financially stable life, and one day he happens to meet a stockbroker who opens him up to the possibility of a different future. You don't need a degree to be a successful stockbroker, the guy tells him as he parks his shiny red sportscar in front of the office building. You just need to be good with numbers and great with people. Gardner is both -- and the idea forms that he might somehow be able to parlay his skills into a new career path.
The conviction with which Gardner pursues landing the internship position with Dean Witter should be seen by downtrodden, job-hunting young people everywhere. In between sales calls to try to unload another bone-density scanner and keep his son fed, Gardner practically camps out in front of the office building, until he finally lands the big opportunity to compete -- in a six-month, unpaid internship -- against 19 other would-be stockbrokers for a single, coveted position. Gardner has to make a choice: Should he take a risk and pursue a better future for himself and his son, even if means poverty and uncertainty for the duration of the internship and the very real possibility that it will all be in vain?
Smith carries the weight of the film rather well on his broad shoulders, with a soul-felt performance that makes you feel kicked in the gut every time another lousy thing happens to this nice, hard-working, devoted dad. The film rather started to remind me of Zhang Yimou's To Live, a 1994 film about the endless hardships endured by a Chinese family as their fortunes plummet. You start to feel exhausted and downtrodden yourself after a while, just watching Gardner frantically running around San Francisco chasing people who steal his bone-density scanners, trying desperately to get to meetings on time, and racing to get himself and Christopher into line at the shelter by 5PM, so they don't have to sleep on the streets. There are moments reminiscent of Life is Beautiful as well, with the theme of a father protecting his son from the harsh reality in which they find themselves.
Throughout it all, Smith plays it serious. There's neither glint nor glimmer of the wise-cracking Fresh Prince here; Gardner is a determined man struggling to succeed against overwhelming odds that would have most of us throwing in the towel, and the weight of worry seems permanently etched on Smith's brow. I've seen Smith say numerous times in interviews that he considers himself to have only average talent, and that he has to work really hard to make up for it. I kind of doubt the lack of talent bit -- he's stood out since the first episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and that potential to be a really good actor has always been there. He reached for it with Ali, pushing himself to a whole new level, and The Pursuit of Happyness finds him growing from there, tapping into his own instincts as a father to find that core of courage and passion to protect his son that makes his performance here utterly convincing. It's not surprising, given who his parents are, that Jaden Smith is every bit as cute as you could possibly want a kid to be in a film like this; what's perhaps a bit more surprising is the depth of the seven-year-old's performance as a little kid whose life has been turned on its ear.
Given the potential sap factor of the storyline, the script and direction are remarkably restrained. Helmer Gabriele Muccino (The Last Kiss), resists the urge to go all rah-rah-American-success-story, keeping the focus firmly on Gardner's determination and his relationship with his son. There are a few holes here and there -- it's hard to tell whether because of the script or because some scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor -- that were a little distracting. We don't see enough of Gardner's wife, Linda, to really understand what motivates her to abandon the son she seems to care for, for instance. A few details of the real story have been mucked with a bit (not at all uncommon in adapting a true-life story to the big screen, it should be noted): Gardner was actually paid a small stiped during his internship, and his son was an infant, not five, at the time the story happened. But these are minor quibbles with an otherwise decent and inspirational film, with a solid performance by Smith that could well garner him that Oscar nod everyone keeps buzzing about.