'Pursuit of Happyness': An Uphill Climb That's an Exhilarating Breath of Fresh Air

Will Smith and his son Jaden play down-on-his-luck salesman Christopher Gardner and his son, who learn that if life hands you lemons, open a lemonade stand.
Will Smith and his son Jaden play down-on-his-luck salesman Christopher Gardner and his son, who learn that if life hands you lemons, open a lemonade stand. (By Zade Rosenthal -- Columbia Pictures)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2006

You can look up "The Pursuit of Happyness" on the Internet Movie Database and see that a guy named Gabriele Muccino made it. Or you can pay attention during the credits and learn the same thing.

Except it's wrong. He didn't make it. You know who made it?

Your old man made it.

It's certainly got the old man's lessons, the ones you thought were so full of hooey. Remember when he told you, "Stick to it until it's done"? What did he know?

And then there was: "Get along with your boss. He's your boss because he's earned it." What a crock.

And then, "Don't whine, don't make excuses, just do the job." Boy, that one was a bummer. What was he, a Republican or something?

And finally, worst of all, the one nobody wants to hear, it hurts so much: "Work like hell." I hate that one.

But those are the lessons and that is the sermon of "The Pursuit of Happyness," a radically conservative encomium to trying hard, to capitalism, to salesmanship, to Dean Witter, to never saying die, and to reaping the big reward.

The film is the biography of a real guy named Christopher Gardner, whom Will Smith, charming and bright, embodies to the fingertips. As the film has it, Chris is (a) extremely likable, (b) a whiz with numbers and (c) a total loser.

And why is Chris a loser? Well, wanting his piece of the dream and trusting in his salesmanship, he has invested in a bone scanner about the size of a sewing machine and tramps about the San Francisco area (it's the early 1980s) trying to sell them to physicians. He has the salesman's gift of gab; he has a legitimate, even excellent, product; he is relentless. The problem is, as he learns all too quickly, the machines are Cadillacs in a VW market; they do the job too well and most practices don't really need them.

So the lack of success is grinding him down, down, down; he's not moving a single unit. The rent is due. He's behind in all his other payments. His wife is working double shifts in a hotel laundry. He has bad issues of self-doubt, and when he looks at his little boy and thinks how close the wolf is to the door, it scares him into despair.

The movie is about that moment in a man's life when even that fragile grip on the American dream is sundered. It all goes away.


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