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Pursuit of Happyness, The Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007

Image “Pursuit of Happyness” is based on the real-life story of Chris Gardner (Will Smith), a one-time employee of Dean Witter, the stock brokerage firm. The real story, and the film, touch the heart. Parents and kids alike will find something in this movie that they can relate to. Parents who have worked extra hours and extra days just to make ends meet know exactly what Gardner had to do to succeed. Kids who grew up like young Christopher (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith), who watched their parents spend endless hours in almost hopeless frustration, know what the boy went through and how he felt. Every viewer will find someone here to identify with. There are those who will even identify with Linda (Thandie Newton), Gardner’s wife and young Christopher’s mother when she became so hopeless that she had to leave.

Even though the movie only covers the “condensed” six months of struggle that Gardner faced to become a stockbroker for a prestigious firm, at something less than two hours the film can’t relate everything that father and son went through during the years it took to get firmly into the business. But enough of those emotions, doubts and fears and love show up on the screen that the viewer can borrow them all while the movie plays.

As revealed in the special feature section, the decision to star Jaden Christopher Syre Smith as Christopher came late in the game. The director Gabriele Muccino had almost given up casting the role when they thought of Will Smith’s son. Will and Jaden proved to be a natural team throughout the shooting of the film. People actually familiar with Chris Gardner’s true story from his autobiography will recognize immediately that a ton of creative license was taken with actual events. Gardner’s homelessness at the time he was an intern at Dean Witter was done without his son, and he wasn’t selling the bone density x-ray devices. Gardner was actually drawing a thousand dollars a month while training, not receiving no payment at all.

The story is still painful, but it’s been prettied up some Hollywood-style. In the movie, Gardner was arrested for non-payment of parking tickets. In real-life he was arrested for attacking his girlfriend, Christopher’s mother, to whom he was never married. In those days, men were locked up during domestic situations as a matter of course without anyone checking into the truth of the matter. Gardner maintains that he did not strike his girlfriend and she only swore out the complaint as retaliation against him.

The San Francisco background in the movie is well presented. The title of the movie, as well as Gardner’s book, comes from an actual daycare facility name that Gardner saw while homeless, though in reality, his son never attended the place. That’s part of the creative license.

Smith’s portrayal of Gardner is heart-breaking. Smith continues to amaze a lot of moviegoers who simply classify him as a comedian or an action star. “Pursuit of Happyness” introduces them to a whole new side of Will Smith the actor. The pain and conviction in his words as he delivers his dialogue seem real. The tears he sheds over his situation are real. Interviews with Smith after the making of the movie reveal that he couldn’t keep the emotions out of the scenes because he kept thinking of what it would be like to be that father and be forced to do the things he had to do.

The strained relationship between Gardner onscreen and his son’s mother is apparent, and every watcher can guess the cause. Money, especially the lack of money, destroys a lot of relationships. One of the things that many people wanted to know after the book came out and after the movie came out was what happened to Christopher’s mother. She simply disappears. It seems she would have come forward by now, especially with the movie out. But, like in real life, there are some questions always left unanswered, and what happened to her is one of those.

Thandie Newton plays Chris’s mother. She is remarkably believable as a woman who is worn down from working double-shifts, taking care of a child, and living on hope far too long. Her mannerisms make her a sympathetic figure and villainess all at once.

The disparity between Gardner’s life at home and on the streets when contrasted with his work at Dean Witter reveal how hard it must have been to slip from one world, where money seem to flow like water, to the other, where five dollars could make a difference between eating or going hungry.

One aspect of the movie that might surprise most viewers is how many people need public assistance every day. The Glide Mission where Gardner and Christopher stayed for a time is shown with the real-life minister who set up a program to help the homeless. Most people forget that there are that many people out there who need help.

There is a lot of comic relief in the movie. When Gardner loses one of his bone density scanners to a hippie girl and has to chase her down to recover it, the audience gets a chance to draw a breath and escape the hopelessness of his and his son’s situation. These breaks are a signal that everything will soon be okay no matter how bleak the situation seems.

Even though the viewers receive constant reminders that they’re only watching a movie, the reality is never far removed from what they are experiencing. That’s the skill that Will Smith and his young son bring to the screen. Viewers will be mesmerized by the easy camaraderie between the two and will root for them to be out of the harsh circumstances they find themselves in.

The video portion of the movie is awesome. The scenes are extremely well shot and reveal a lot of the city, which apparently hasn’t changed a lot in the last twenty some-odd years. The set designer, as revealed in a special feature section, found a lot of the original computer equipment similar to what was being used by Dean Witter back in 1981. If you look closely, you can see that most of the programs seem to run out of DOS. In an interview, Gardner said he couldn’t believe how close the set designer had come to how things actually had been during that time.

The audio portion is fantastic. Of course this is not an action film. The surround sound system really gets a good workout or a musically based picture, but there’s enough there in the city noises and dialogue to really show off the audio capabilities of the disc.

“The Pursuit of Happyness” is a great film. The basic story of rags-to-riches is a given, but getting to see Chris Gardner and hear him speak really brings home the fact that it’s based on true events. Most of the movie focuses on the bad times, and for nearly two hours the audience is dragged through the despair and hopelessness of Gardner’s situation. Those feelings can be a lot to take in a single sitting, but the reward is there and delivered in a way that totally fits the movie. Will Smith delivers a solid portrayal of a man trapped between a rock and a hard place, who struggles to hold onto a dream, any dream, and just wants to be a good father to son.

The special features sections on the movie tend to be intimate, just like the story. Viewers get to watch Will and his son, Chris Gardner in his old stomping grounds where his life had been so hard, and hear the director’s thoughts on the story versus the movie as well as why some of the changes and choices were made for the film presentation.

The movie is recommended for family viewing, but not for the very young due to the serious emotional situations portrayed onscreen. There is an incidence of bad language at one point, though the movie doesn’t use much of it. Will Smith fans will claim this is one of his better efforts, and rightfully so. He shines in the role of Chris Gardner.

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