Watching The Pursuit of Happyness reminded me of Earth's sole entry in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy – Mostly Harmless. Another connect that I could make between the two is that while H2G2 (as it is known among us geeks) was a fine book that included biting wit, searing commentary and plain oddball fun in one epic literary work, it's the listless film that will be more popular amongst the masses. Similarly, while Chris Gardner's story may have been that of true grit and strong will, his story will always be known by this Oscar-baiting film.
There is nothing wrong with making a film that panders to the Oscar jury and the plays on the emotional quotient of the audience deliberately, but in doing so, the film has made Gardner a bit of a silly man. I am not entirely well-versed with Gardner's story, but this film portrays him as a man who is very obviously doing the wrong thing, and you just can't cheer for the guy.
But ultimately, this film is not about will, but Will, and Smith is the only reason you should see this film. Finally an answer to why he gets all those parts to play where he basically saves the world time and time again. He has such a larger than life charisma, that this film becomes a touchstone for his ability to shoulder a film.
The movie is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, a salesman living in San Fransisco with his son and wife in the 1980s. The setting of the film doesn't matter too much, as apart from the odd hairdos of Smith and his son, the and a few TV clips, it's no different in its atmosphere. The period setting is mostly ignored, and the only focus remains Gardner's job. He sells weird and expensive scanners to doctors, and because they are weird and expensive, they don't sell too well.
The family is going through hard times, and when the wife (a remorseless Thandie Newton) leaves him and moves to be with her family, Gardner insists on keeping their son (sweet, yet poignant Jaden Smith) with him. That to me is the first of a string of bad choices Gardner (the protagonist in the feature, not the real man) makes. Instead of letting his son grow up in a supportive and well-to-do environment, he insists on keeping him with himself.
While that may still be understood by us Hindi movie aficionados (Kaash, anyone?), the next decision as portrayed is simply bizarre. He enrolls in a 6-month internship program in stock-brokering, which pays nothing and is full-time. This is even more bizarre when I found out that in real life the program paid a small stipend to Gardner.
The rest of the story follows Smith and Smith Jr. as they discover new lows and try to stick together in face of increasing difficulties until such time as Pa graduates from the program. This, then, is not a film about the pursuit of happiness. This becomes one man's pursuit of money and success, and how he puts his son through unbelievably harsh times to achieve that.
One of the biggest Oscar-selling moments in this film is the part where the father and son get evicted from the hotel they are staying at and have to spend a night at a subway station bathroom. That just falls flat for me – he could have done anything except take the program at that point, and not have his child sleep at a restroom floor.
It's difficult to ignore this kind of politics in the film, especially if seen from the Indian perspective. In the real sense, we have seen the poor and the destitute, and I see no reason for an educated, sane and able-bodied man to stoop as low as living at the homeless shelter with his son. Even in the filmi sense, you see no desperation in his actions, no last minute grab at anything, even if it demeans him to get his son to stay one night more at a better place. Sure, he loves him, but that's not enough when he insists on being plain nuts.
To add to the conundrum of being extremely unbelievable in its extreme portrayal of Gardner's life, the film also has the added burden of a star-oriented screenplay to carry. Jaden and Will, both Smiths, are the only people who matter in the film, and the screenplay resolutely refuses to give any scope for any other characters to be developed. Everybody else is kept at an antiseptic distance, and is used to present plot points rather than being a part of a well-inhabited world.
The good thing to come out of that is the sheer presence of Will Smith and the force of his charisma that carries the film forward. He gives it his all as a charming salesman, a scared dad, and a strong-willed American dream. The desperation of his character shows through even in the small touches of the film, and it ultimately becomes the sort of performance that almost makes up for the faults in the screenplay.
Jaden Smith not only gives in a very poignant and fresh performance, his presence is pivotal in bringing out the touching moments in Will Smith's performance. Having his real son in his arms inside the subway station restroom must add to the sense of dread for that moment. This is great chemistry and an unbelievably restrained acting display on part of the Smiths, and all cheers to both of them for making a maudlin film extremely watchable.
This film is mostly harmless in the manipulative, Academy-friendly way it presents itself, and can be watched by just about anyone as a piece of entertainment that works because of the leads yet will soon be forgotten. But the message-mongering it tries to do, and the absolute American Conservativism/Republican politics of the film, make it a beguiling piece of entertainment. I may have been reading too much into it, but then again, it's not something you can ignore.
But if you can, faults and all, go for decent entertainment, and a few true heartfelt moments.