A review of “The Pursuit of Happyness” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for language

Run Time: 1 hour, 57 minutes



Will Smith gives a surprisingly rich performance as a suburban dreamer who refuses to say die.

“You got a dream, you gotta protect it. If you want something, go get it. Period.” Words of wisdom passed from struggling medical supply salesman Chris Gardner (Smith) to his 5-year old son Christopher (real-life son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith). The sentiment bears heavy meaning considering the hardships facing Gardner as a suddenly single parent endeavoring to break off a piece of the American dream by enrolling in a risky unpaid internship program with high-profile stockbroker Dean Witter.

San Francisco circa 1981 is a city ripe with potential if you know how to work it. And Gardner works like a madman to protect his boy and pull himself out of a perpetual hole. When it gets as hard-luck as it can – a dissatisfied wife (Thandie Newton) who abandons father and son, faulty bone-density scanners that won’t sell, no rent for the apartment and the IRS nipping at his heels – Gardner somehow reaches into untapped reserves of tenacity and courage.

Inspirational? You betcha. And based on the real-life struggles of self-made gazillionaire Chris Gardner. But darker than Smith’s standard fare, sidestepping easy comedy in favor of a jaggedly desperate narrative that makes you work for its climax if not its message. The despair runs deep, a striking complement to Gardner’s painful journey and Smith’s on-point performance as a closet braniac anxious to unleash his inner genius.

“Pursuit” looks like a big slick Hollywood production, the kind generally trotted out at the holidays for maximum sentimental consumption. Unlike most box-office giants this quasi-rags-to-riches tale only occasionally overplays its hand, edging perilously close to maudlin and depressing but generally retreating on the cusp.

Smith has real chops as a dramatic actor, his talent running the gamut from facial expressions to timing to body language. Smith Jr. – he of the mouthful moniker -- is a pleasant surprise, hitting genuine notes where it would be simpler to ham it up kid-style. San Francisco is its glorious self with a hard-edge focus on the Tenderloin.

A real-life story that feels real -- uncommonly refreshing.