Destitution, homelessness and humiliation get the gloss-over, but Will Smith keeps things watchable, in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” a potential true-life sparkler that has been sanitized and sentimentalized into rags-to-riches syrup.
The setting is San Francisco, 1981, when the Rubik’s Cube is the rage, Reaganomics is happening and homeless shelters such as Glide Memorial are filling up with newcomers of every stripe. Inspired by a “20/20” feature, the film chronicles the against-the-odds success story of Chris Gardner (Smith), the real-life devoted dad and American dreamer who overcame immense difficulty and became a thriving financial broker.
The film focuses on his early ascent. Unable to make a living selling bone-density scanners, Chris loses his savings, his marriage and his apartment and winds up homeless with a 5-year-old son (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Will’s real-life son) to care for.
There are numerous subjects that this film, whose title reflects a misspelling at a day-care center, might have compellingly explored. But instead, director Gabriele Muccino (“The Last Kiss”) and screenwriter Steven Conrad (“The Weather Man”) serve up slush packaged as uplift.
With the exception of a passage in which father and son use a BART bathroom as lodging, material that contains potential for gritty, quirky or harrowing effect is upstaged by clichés and implausibilities, like chases. And while the younger Smith can tell a knock-knock joke, his cute time comes at the expense of direly needed starker stuff.
As for Will Smith, he’s the best thing here. Both actor and movie star, he nails the hustle element that’s essential to realizing the American dream while also delivering substance. Were this a sharper, deeper, more emotionally truthful film, he might have taken us somewhere riveting.
The Pursuit of Happyness **
Starring Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton
Written by Steven Conrad
Directed by Gabriele Muccino
Running time 1 hour, 57 minutes