The Pursuit Of Happyness

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The movie takes its title, complete with misspelling, from the name of the Chinatown daycare center where Chris drops off his little boy each weekday until what little money he has left runs out.

 

In 2003, the ABC-TV newsmagazine 20/20 ran a story about an honorably-discharged, Navy veteran who had fallen on such hard times that he ended up homeless and struggling to survive by his wits on the streets of San Francisco.

In the heartbreaking segment, Chris Gardner recounted how, after being abandoned by his wife, evicted from his apartment, having his account frozen by the IRS, and having his car repossessed, he and his five year-old son soon bottomed-out with no hope in sight. The two ended up eating at soup kitchens, sleeping in church shelters and subway stations, and bathing in public bathrooms, until the frustrated father finally figured a way to extract them from their dire circumstances.

But like the hero of your typical Horatio Alger story, Gardner pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, starting out as an intern at a leading stock brokerage firm. He then parlayed that position into his own entrepreneurial venture and, as the founder of Christopher Gardner International Holdings, built the multi-million-dollar financial services empire which still bears his name today. After watching the aforementioned 20-20 episode, actor Mark Clayman approached Gardner about gaining the rights to turn his rags-to-riches tale into a major motion picture.

The upshot is a crowd-pleasing production called The Pursuit of Happyness, one of those uplifting, overcoming-the-odds “miracle� movies which seem to be released every year around Christmastime. This inspirational bio-pic features Will and Jaden Smith, as Chris and Chris, Jr., respectively. The real-life father-son duo has no trouble generating screen chemistry, here, being already rather relaxed with each other, quite naturally. And as it turns out, Jaden is just as likable and as charismatic as his famous father.

Thandie Newton co-stars as Chris’ fed-up ex, Linda, and the cast also includes Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer Simpson) as Alan Frakesh, the Dean Witter executive who gives Chris his shot at redemption, as well as Reverend Cecil Williams and Chris Gardner, himself, in cameo appearances. But make no mistake, this is a Will and Jaden Smith vehicle, their characters’ plight contrasting sharply with the array of spectacular Bay Area locales employed as backdrops.

The movie takes its title, complete with misspelling, from the name of the Chinatown daycare center where Chris drops off his little boy each weekday until what little money he has left runs out. At the point of departure, we find Chris putting in long hours as a door-to-door salesman of an obsolete bone-density machine of not much interest to doctors. Meanwhile, his equally-exhausted spouse is holding down a trio of minimum-wage, part-time positions, yet the couple still can’t seem to make ends meet.

Then, in short order, Chris is beset by more tests than Job in the Bible, losing everything near and dear to him except his son. Yet despite being down, he is never embittered by his predicament, even maintaining his sense of humor and quick wit during his Dean Witter interview when Mr. Frakesh asks how he should explain hiring a man not wearing a shirt to superiors. “He must have had on some really nice pants,� Chris responds without missing a beat, exhibiting a charm reminiscent of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Expect to laugh as much as you cry during this touching tearjerker.

Excellent (3.5 stars). PG-13 for profanity. Running time: 116 minutes
Studio: Columbia Pictures

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