The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Cast: Will Smith, Thandie Newton, Jaden Smith
Synopsis: A struggling salesman takes custody of his son as he’s poised to begin a life-changing professional endeavor.
For the first of his two collaborations to date with director Gabriele Muccino (the second was Seven Pounds) Will Smith (Hitch, Hancock) gives an emotionally charged performance as real-life stockbroker and motivational speaker, Chris Gardner, a man who overcame great odds to achieve extraordinary success as a stockbroker in the 1980s. Although based on true events, The Pursuit of Happyness is also a Hollywood movie, so it blithely changes details and re-arranges chronological events in order to up the emotional clout. Knowing this diminishes the power of the movie – but not Smith’s heartfelt performance – and yet, to anyone who looks beyond it’s sentimental manoeuvring, the film still manages to make Gardner look like an irresponsible father who placed his career goals over the well-being of his small son (Smith’s own son, Jaden- After Earth).
It’s 1981, and, in a fever of entrepreneurial enthusiasm, Gardner has invested in a lorryload of bone density scanners which give slightly better images than conventional x-ray machines but cost a lot more money. Each day, Gardner totes one of the portable devices around hospitals while his wife toils in a pizza parlour and his son attends the Pursuit of Happyness day care centre, and most days he carries it back home again, unsold. The financial burden takes its toll on the Gardner’s marriage, but Chris insists that Christopher stays with him when his wife announces that she is moving to New York. Her departure comes just as Gardner wins an internship with a brokerage firm which takes on twenty interns each year but offers only one of them a permanent position after their six month probationary period is completed. Given that none of these twenty receive payment for their services, it amounts to little more than white-collar exploitation, but Gardner is determined to make a success of his new career, even if it means he has to try and sell the scanners in his spare time while also studying for a highly challenging exam which he must pass if he is to have any chance of securing the position. However, even after selling all of the scanners, Gardner is unable to pay the rent and he and his son end up homeless.
There’s no denying the emotional force behind The Pursuit of Happyness. It’s impossible not to share Gardner’s despair as he and his small son are reduced to sleeping behind the locked door of a subway toilet, or to admire his indefatigable resolve as he struggles against the kind of overwhelming odds that would have defeated most people. But the fact is that most of the film’s emotional high points either never happened or are so distorted as to be unrecognisable from the truth. Gardner never sold bone density scanners, he earned $1000 a month while working at Dean Witter, and would sometimes raise money by falsely complaining that hotel vending machines had eaten his money. He was even a drug dealer at one point in his life. The movie mentions none of this – or the fact that young Christopher was actually only two years old when the events depicted took place. Of course, every movie deserves room for some artistic licence, but it has to be said that The Pursuit of Happyness abuses the privilege in order to make Gardner a far more noble character than he seems to have been in real life. If you think after watching the movie that Gardner is an inspirational character, consider for a moment what a different story it would be if told from his son’s perspective.
Watch The Pursuit of Happyness for Smith senior’s fine performance, and for an insight into how Hollywood manipulates the truth In order to part you from your money – just don’t expect to gain much of an insight into the real Chris Gardner.
(Reviewed 25th February 2016)
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