Stories of people who dramatically change their lives are the backbone folklore of American life. It is what we believe about our country -- that it is a place where decency and pluck are rewarded. A place where if you want something badly enough, you will get it.
In The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is also a man who believes, despite copious evidence to the contrary, that he will make it. In 1981 San Francisco, Chris has a wife, Linda (Thandie Newton), who works double shifts at a laundry and whose beauty is marred by a constant, angry scowl. Chris survives by dreaming things could be better, and Linda is a born pragmatist who can only see the poverty threatening to swallow them whole. Fueling Linda's fury, Chris' get-rich scheme to sell a bulky bone-density scanner door-to-door to skeptical doctors is a bust. It is a reflection of how completely the decks are stacked against Chris that, while no one seems to want to buy his scanner, the country is shelling out millions for the consummately useless Rubik's Cube.
As Chris' bad decision becomes more apparent by the day, his wife's fury crescendos. She deserts Chris, leaving him to care for their 5-year-old son, Christopher (Smith's own son Jaden). She also leaves Chris to his almost surreal desire -- without a college degree or connections -- to become a stockbroker, a desire seemingly motivated by a scene where he glimpses a wealthy man driving a red sports car.
"Stockbroker? Not an astronaut?" Linda spits back with disbelief at this absurd notion.
Even when father and son end up homeless, Chris manages to hold his prestigious, unpaid internship at Dean Witter together. He crams for an exam in a homeless shelter stairwell and crafts foxy explanations for his Dean Witter bosses about why he is toting a suitcase, garment bag and all his worldly belongings to work.
The toppled dominos of bad luck build up, and one of Happyness' insights is how being poor is not one hole to crawl out of, but an interlocking warren of them -- no support system, substandard child care, no savings -- and escape seems virtually impossible. Although, it should be noted, Andrea Guerra's treacle, sunny-side-of-the-street soundtrack makes a happy ending a virtual certainty.
There is much to recommend Happyness, including the believably testy and tender relationship between Chris and Christopher; the younger Smith is a child actor without the sugarcoating of so many movie children. And in a cinema where white filmmakers envision black aspiration as pimps who long to be rappers, it's a nice change to see a film proposing a black man as a determined, loving, idealistic father.
But The Pursuit of Happyness is also a film that gets a lot wrong. It's a film you wish had more teeth. It's so intent on telling the story of this one relentlessly driven man that it glosses over anything that will undermine the golden fantasy of the American dream that Chris embraces.
For instance, the notion of racism is virtually nonexistent in The Pursuit of Happyness, despite the fact that director Gabriele Muccino opens his film with a montage of largely black street entertainers and messengers and other citizens of life's margins. But the fact that Chris is black and his employers white never seems to have occurred to him and proves little impediment to his progress. The white people are simply like the hurdles in Chariots of Fire: straightforward obstacles to overcome on the race to the finish.
Even as consummate an American dreamer as Frank Capra in his stories of ordinary, decent men was hep to how corrupt and unfair the country's institutions could be. Happyness is in many ways the antithesis of the upcoming Robert De Niro film The Good Shepherd, which asserts that the country we think of as free and equal is actually run by very wealthy and well-educated white men from their perches at Yale's Skull and Bones club and the CIA.
The Pursuit of Happyness could have been a much darker story. But instead, it is a definitively American one.