I have to confess that Will Smith is a much better actor than what people give him credit for. Sure, more times than not he comes off as a smarmy, care-free, wise-crackin’ sidekick promoted to leading man, but even when he’s in that mode he impresses by being able to touch the soul of the character he plays. Regardless of how shallow a character may be, Smith infuses them with more soul than what is on the page and that’s a remarkable ability sadly lacking from the current generation of would-be thespians.
In The Pursuit of Happyness he plays real-life Chris Gardner who was utterly destitute in San Francisco during the late 1970s, yet managed to remain a strong role model for his young son. In the meantime, he worked as an unpaid intern at Dean Witter with little more than hope that they would hire him upon completing their course. It didn’t help when his wife up and disappeared leaving him and his son completely alone with no money to their names in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
I was absolutely floored by how hard it must have been to live in abject poverty while somehow supporting a child. The film struck a certain nerve, I guess, because My Fair Lady and I have spoken at length about starting a family of our own and it’s terrifying to think of not being able to support one. You can see the desperation in Chris’s eyes during a scene late in the film where they have to spend the night in a bus station bath room. But as powerful as this one moment is, it’s given even more meaning once you see the behind-the-scenes documentary where the real Chris Gardner saw that set for the first time and all his memories, long buried for good reason, came flooding back.
The film does a remarkable job of creating San Francisco in the early 1980s right down to the stock tickers and newspapers. Smith is excellent as the determined Gardner who makes a personal vow to get him and his son out of their situation and never veers from it despite one massive setback after another.
Of course there’s a happy ending to it all but the journey there is a very solid film anchored by a terrific Smith. Also, his son in the film is played by Smith’s real life son Jaden and watching the two of them bounce off each other gives the film a truer sense of reality than most other Hollywood films have. Keep a sharp eye out for the real Chris Gardner’s cameo in the final shot, which contrasts where he was and what he eventually became.
This is a very, very good movie.