Although its story is substantially more compressed than Live and Become’s, The Pursuit of Happyness runs nearly two hours. Anything less, apparently, would be an affront to the seriousness of its subject (a climb from the homeless shelter to the corporate high-rise) and its star (Will Smith). Yet only huge fans of Smith, or new admirers of his cute son, will fail to notice that the same sorts of things happen over and over again in this tiresomely redundant movie. There are so many transportation mishaps, for example, that it seems as if Steven Conrad recycled large chunks of his script from a documentary advocating improvements in San Francisco’s transit network.
Uplifting in the blandest possible way, The Pursuit of Happyness was “inspired by”â€”one step past “based on” on the scale of Hollywood veracityâ€”the life of Bay Area financier Christopher Gardner. It’s set during Ronald Reagan’s first term, when unemployment hit its highest levels since the Great Depression, and there are several scenes depicting overcrowded homeless shelters. Yet the movie’s primary signifier of the era is the Rubik’s Cube.
When preschool-age son Christopher (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) is given one of the cubes, Chris Gardner (Smith) becomes fixated on solving it. Chris might seem to have more pressing things on his mind: He can’t sell enough bone density scanners to support his family, wife Linda (Thandie Newton) is about to leave him, and eviction looms. Yet the cube pays off, of course. Chris snags a taxi ride with successful broker Jay Twistle (Brian Howe), who’s puzzling over one of the things. Chris has all six sides aligned by the time the trip ends, which so impresses Jay that he offers Chris a shot at an internship at his firm. But the internship is unpaid, meaning that Chris will have to keep scrambling ’til just before the final credits roll.
The scramble mostly involves cars, trains, buses, and clothes. Italian-bred director Gabriele Muccino, whose The Last Kiss suffered a dreary American remake earlier this year, stages a half-dozen near-interchangeable scenes in which Chris desperately runs after a bus or into the BART rapid-rail system. A desperate search for a parking space for his boss’s car is the crux of one sequence, and when Chris shows up poorly dressed for an essential interview, it’s because he just spent the night in jail for not paying his parking tickets. Muccino and Conrad can’t seem to resist any variation on the cars-and-clothes set piece: There’s another one where the ever-frantic Chris chases someone into the street, is hit by a car, and hobbles back to the office minus one of his shoes.
Although the tale’s message could not be more obvious, Smith is given superfluous voice-overs in which he contemplates Jefferson’s notion of the “pursuit of happiness.” (The title’s misspelling comes from a mural at Christopher’s Chinatown daycare center.) Chris also delivers the moral directly to his son: “You got a dream? You gotta protect it.” Just as important as the dream, however, is Smith’s star power. His cool is an essential part of his appeal, so after all the mishaps, someone has to pay tribute to it. Having finally made the grade, Chris is asked by one rich white guy, “Was it as easy as it looked?” Well, yes and no. Smith emerges unblemished, but for such an elementary bootstraps parable, The Pursuit of Happyness is a remarkably hard slog.