Here’s a testament to Will Smith’s inherent charisma: I would have despised The Pursuit of Happyness if it wasn’t for him. The film is the story of a man who is essentially dumb, and it has a right wing anti-homeless vibe running throughout it. And that’s not even addressing the movie’s inherently sappy and manipulative aspects. But thanks to Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness is watchable, and enjoyable – even if you’ll hate yourself for it later.
The film is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, a guy living in San Francisco with his wife and son. Money is tight and times are tough – it’s apparently the early 80s, although besides a Rubik’s Cube-motivated scene, some Reagan on the TV and a couple of bad outfits, the period setting seems unimportant and mostly ignored – and Chris has a pretty bad job. He sells portable bone scanners to doctors, but the devices are unwieldy and expensive, and he has to hustle very hard just to unload one a month. The family is behind on their bills and rent and the wife (played without any humanity by Thandie Newton) is reaching the end of her tether.
There are two choices Chris makes that set everything in the rest of the movie into motion, and they both seem like bad choices. When the wife leaves and moves to New York to be with her family, Chris insists on keeping their son, rather than letting him go and be surrounded by people who could help raise and support him. Then Chris decides to apply for an internship in a six month stock broker training program. It’s highly competitive – 20 people are in the program, but only one will get the job – and it’s full time. And it doesn’t pay (in real life Gardner’s internship paid a small stipend. That was deemed not dramatic enough). Chris takes the internship, even though it means he and his son will have no real source of income for a half year.
This is such a bad decision that only the magnetism of Will Smith could keep me from throwing my hands up in disgust. Sure, follow your dreams, better yourself… but when you insist on keeping the child your responsibility is to keep him fed, clothed and housed. And quite soon Chris and the son find themselves evicted and living in a motel and then finally kicked out of there and on the streets. They spend a night locked in a subway station bathroom and then begin taking up space at local shelters. Chris could have found a job, even a bad one that demeaned him and didn’t let him live up to his full potential, and kept his child from sleeping in a filthy public bathroom. But Chris must follow his crazy dream – and honestly, the fact that it paid off doesn’t make it less crazy; just because you win the lottery doesn’t mean you were smart for wasting most of your salary on tickets for the last ten years.
What’s amazing is that the film never shows Chris going for government assistance. We are shown very clearly that the shelter he stays in is run by the church in a wonderful faith based initiative. And while he stays in this shelter, not one other homeless person intrudes on his story. By my count there are three homeless people (other than Chris and the son) who have lines: a crazy burnt out hippie who steals one of Chris’ bone scanners, thinking it’s a time machine (Chris losing scanners is a tiresome running gag), a belligerent bum who tries to cut Chris in line at the shelter and a crippled bum who calls the other bum out. This man and his son are deposited into this great mass of desperate people and none of them make a mark on them. What’s more, by reducing the story of homelessness to only Chris’, The Pursuit of Happyness is saying that anybody can get out of the gutter by simply really, really wanting to do better. Anyone who has worked with the homeless knows that this is utter horse shit, and a right wing talking point of horse shit at that – many people without homes don’t have other options, due to mental illness, disabilities or other profound problems. There are some who are on the streets because of their own dumb choices (hey, like Chris Gardner!) but there are also many who have found themselves there because they’ve been failed time and again. These are the people who were hanging on to the margins of society in the first place, and they have no handhold with which to climb back up. Quite simply not everyone can take a six month stock broker course for free.
To be fair, The Pursuit of Happyness doesn’t just keep the homeless at arm’s length – the whole movie takes place inside a weird cocoon inhabited only by Chris and his son. Almost no other character makes an impact except as dramatic obstacles and comedic foils. It’s a way of making sure that Chris is the self-made man, the ultimate right wing archetype of a Good American. He can’t be met with basic kindness by friends or family because that would be a crutch. He needs to get everything done only by sheer willpower and a firm grip on his own bootstraps. But by isolating Chris the movie only reinforced to me what a terrible set of choices he had made – at least if he had a support system, some couches he could crash on, someone who could watch the kid, keeping the son wouldn’t have been so selfish and stupid.
I don’t want to diminish the achievements of the real Chris Gardner, especially as I don’t know where the film diverges from reality. The level of commitment he had to show is incredible, and more than a little inspiring – if the movie had ended with him, now successful, traveling to New York to get his son back. But he’s a black guy who wants to keep his son… you listening out there, other black guys?
Gardner’s a salesman, and that’s a perfect role for Will Smith. The guy’s all charm, often almost to the point of smarm, and you believe him as a guy who always has a hustle and a plan. But Smith is reaching for the Oscar here, so he also has to show the sad, unsure side of Gardner. That night in the bathroom is Smith’s Oscar clip, as he lies sprawled on the floor, one leg jamming the door shut, eyes darting between his sleeping child and the crack beneath the door as someone bangs on it. Tears roll down his face. Cut to: Will Smith in the audience at the Kodak Theater, the real Chris Gardner next to him, face wet. The naked ambition of the performance doesn’t make it any poorer – Smith’s a very good movie actor. He reminds me of Tom Hanks in that both seem to have a natural ability to understand how much or how little is needed to sell an emotion – while the audience I saw The Pursuit of Happyness with wept like a wound, Smith doesn’t go for the all-out waterworks that often. He doesn’t go too dramatic, knowing that by playing the opposite end of the spectrum – Gardner’s get up and go in the face of any adversity, even getting hit by a car and losing his shoe – we see the desperation underneath. It’s not his best or most mature performance – that’s still Ali – but it’s a better one than this manipulative bucket of slop ultimately deserves.
Part of his performance probably comes from the fact that the child playing Gardner’s son is Smith’s actual son. Young Jaden Smith sports an afro that makes him look like he’s auditioning for a live action Boondocks movie, but he doesn’t fall into the cutesy kid trap; in fact there’s one scene where Daddy Smith is pushed to the limits and the kid prods him just a bit farther – when Will snaps it made me feel pretty good, instead of bad for the cloying child. Nice! Also, now that Jaden is acting, does that make him the Fresh Prince? I don’t know if Will Smith was ever officially coronoted the Fresh King.
As an emotionally manipulative piece of Oscar pap, The Pursuit of Happyness is harmless enough. But it’s the film’s politics that are dangerous, since they breed a basic misunderstanding and intolerance of homelessness and poverty in America while ostensibly addressing the problem. It’s actually very insidious, and you almost have to admire the movie for how subtle it is with its evil. Almost.