The Pursuit of Happyness                           

 

The rousing, true-life story of a single dad who went from living on the streets to owning his own brokerage firm is brought to the big screen by superstar Will Smith, appearing for the first time opposite his real-life son Jaden Smith. Set in early-’80s San Francisco, the film charts the hard times and eventual comeback of Chris Gardner, a suddenly single salesman who has custody of his son, but finds that providing for the two of them is a challenge in the increasingly unstable economic climate. The screenplay by Steven Conrad is based on the best-selling eponymous memoir written by Gardner with Quincy Troupe. The film was released on December 15, 2006, by Columbia Pictures. For his performance, Smith was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Actor.

The scenes of the film and the narrating type of the story is 1981`s. the San Francisco salesman Chris Gardner (Will Smith) invests his entire life savings in portable bone density scanners, which he demonstrates to doctors and pitches as a handy quantum leap over standard X-rays. The scanners play a vital role in Chris’ life. While he is able to sell most of them, the time lag between the sales and his growing financial demands enrage his already bitter and alienated wife Linda (Thandie Newton), who works as a hotel maid. The financial instability increasingly erodes their marriage, in spite of them caring for their five-year-old son, Christopher (Jaden Smith). While downtown trying to sell one of the scanners, Gardner meets Jay Twistle (Brian Howe), a manager for Dean Witter Reynolds and impresses him by solving a Rubik’s Cube during a short taxi ride. After Jay leaves, Gardner lacks money to pay the fare, and chooses to run, resulting in the driver chasing him into a BART station. Gardner boards a train but loses one of his scanners in the process. His new relationship with Jay earns him the chance to become an intern stockbroker. The day before the interview, Gardner grudgingly agrees to paint his apartment so as to postpone being evicted due to his difficulty in paying the rent. While painting, Gardner is greeted by two policemen at his doorstep, who take him to the station, stating he has to pay for his numerous parking tickets he has accumulated. As part of the sanction, Gardner is ordered to spend the night in jail, complicating his schedule for the interview the next morning. He manages to arrive at Dean Witter’s office on time, albeit still in his shabby clothes. Despite his appearance, he impresses the interviewers, and lands an unpaid internship. He would be amongst 20 interns competing for a paid position as a broker. Gardner’s unpaid internship does not please Linda, who eventually leaves for New York. After Gardner bluntly says she is incapable of being a single mother, she agrees that Christopher Junior will remain with his father. Gardner is further set back when his bank account is garnished by the IRS for unpaid income taxes, and he and his young son are evicted. He ends up with less than twenty-two dollars, resulting in them being homeless, and are forced at one point to stay in a restroom at a BART station. Other days, he and Christopher spend nights at a homeless shelter, in BART, or, if he manages to procure cash, at a hotel. Later, Gardner finds the bone scanner that he lost in the station and, after repairing it, sells it to a physician, thus completing all his sales of his scanners. Disadvantaged by his limited work hours, and knowing that maximizing his client contacts and profits is the only way to earn the broker position, Gardner develops a number of ways to make phone sales calls more efficiently, including reaching out to potential high value customers, defying protocol. One sympathetic prospect who is a top-level pension fund manager even takes him and his son to a San Francisco 49ers game. Regardless of his challenges, he never reveals his lowly circumstances to his colleagues, even going so far as to lend one of his bosses five dollars for cab fare, a sum that he cannot afford. Concluding his internship, Gardner is called into a meeting with his managers. One of them notes he is wearing a new shirt. Gardner explains it is his last day and thought to dress for the occasion. The manager smiles and says he should wear it again tomorrow, letting him know he has won the coveted full-time position. Fighting back tears, Gardner shakes hands with them, then rushes to his son’s daycare to embrace Christopher. They walk down the street, joking with each other and are passed by a man in a business suit (the real Chris Gardner in a cameo appearance). The epilogue reveals that Gardner went on to form his own multimillion-dollar brokerage firm.

The unusual spelling of the film’s title comes from a mural that Gardner sees on the wall outside the daycare facility his son attends. He complains to the owner of the daycare that “happiness” is incorrectly spelled as “happyness” and needs to be changed.

Smith and his real-life son Jaden bring an emotional depth to the characters they play. The somber role of Gardner is quite a change for Smith, who is known for his less serious roles battling aliens in the Men in Black movies and portraying a matchmaking “date doctor” in the romantic comedy Hitch. He tackles the role with a determined precision and turns out a spectacular performance, which is already generating talk of an Oscar. Though most scenes in the film have a very solemn feel, Smith’s cautious optimism and ambitious nature make us want to root for him to succeed. In a role that could have easily been played syrupy-sweet, Smith instead chooses to let his raw emotions shine through adding a layer of realism. His son, Jaden, proves to be a natural as well. Portraying a child whose life and economic background is so completely opposite from his own doesn’t seem to be a challenge for the young actor. He seems to have a true understanding of the character’s emotional state and expresses it with ease. Newton also provides a noteworthy performance as Gardner’s wife who becomes so emotionally distressed she makes the difficult choice to abandon her child.  While promoting the movie recently, Newton said she wanted audiences to identify with her character’s profound pain rather than flippantly writing her off as an uncaring shrew. Her depiction of the troubled woman walks a fine line between the two.

While the story is a moving tale about a father’s love for his son and working hard to achieve dreams, it is more than that. Pursuit of Happyness is also a poignant portrayal of the problem of homelessness in the society. Perhaps what makes the film so powerful is that it is based on a true story. The problems that Gardner faces are problems faced by many in our society every day.

 

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