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

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.

What does he do? His wife (Thandie Newton, in an extremely unsympathetic role that director Muccino plays up by making this beautiful young woman unattractive) has left him, he's been kicked out of his apartment, and he's now on the streets -- with his son.

That's what makes it all the more painful to watch: The proud man who'd dreamed for so much, humiliated not merely by his failure but by the fear and pain it inflicts on his son (played beautifully by Smith's own son, Jaden), which he can see graven in the young face every day, knowing that to a young mind the lack of security is killing to heart and mind. There's no doubt that Chris is filled with rage at the unfairness of it all, that he yearns to blame all his problems on the various larger contexts that all go unstated in the movie.

That may be what he wants to do, but here's what he does: He shuts up and goes to work.

So "The Pursuit of Happyness" -- the willed misspelling of the word is derived from a sign outside the day-care center where he parks his son every day -- is basically an account of Chris's ordeal by internship. On a whim, he walks into the San Francisco Dean Witter office and learns that twice a year, the fancy brokerage takes on 20-odd interns for a six-month training period, salary $0.00 an hour. At the end of it, the guys in the suits may or may not hire one survivor. Chris decides he will be that one.

It isn't easy. First he has to get admitted to the program, a problem made more difficult by the fact that the night before his interview his car was towed because of parking tickets, he was held in jail, and he got to the office only at the last second without, er, a shirt. How does a tall unshaven black man get a job in a largely white brokerage company in the early 1980s without a shirt? He'd better have one hell of a personality.

The movie is devised almost like a rat-in-maze experiment at the Yale department of psychology. Every few minutes some new obstacle comes up for Chris, threatening to obliterate his dreams; then the movie backs off and watches him improvise brilliantly on the run. What keeps him going? Seems to be faith in self, always underestimated. Yet one of the more telling strokes of the film -- and possibly what keeps it from merging entirely with the you-can-be-anything uplift treacle that sells millions of "inspirational" books and tapes a year -- is its (and Smith's) refusal to idealize Chris too far.

He's no paragon of moral perfection (who could sit through something that suffocating?). Instead, we are aware always that he's right on the edge of breaking down, that he has a mean temper, that he suppresses his "real" self in order to become a "business" self that all the white folks will like, employing that most loathed of all old-fashioned virtues, repression. In fact, he's about as far from letting it all hang out as can be: His ethos is, let nothing hang out, and beat them at their own game. And he does that, whether the game is Rubik's Cube or pushing money market funds.

The film's Rubik's Cube gambit is clever, and sure works as a metaphor for natural talent. The cube doesn't know or care if he's Yale Skull and Bones or the janitor's kid; it gives up its secrets only to someone who gets relationships of space, a signifier of ye olde high IQ.

The movie idealizes Dean Witter, turning it into a kind of rooting section for minorities, and at times the movie could easily be confused with a Dean Witter infomercial on late-night cable. Still, that seems to me a fair payoff for services rendered -- after all, Dean Witter gave the tall, unshaven, shirtless black guy a chance when nobody else would.

You could say: It's all a bunch of bull. After all, Chris Gardner was clearly an extremely gifted man with a need to succeed deep and pure. Maybe that's true, and maybe in your case, it's hopeless, because you lack those gifts. But there's really only one way to tell, right? Get busy.

The Pursuit of Happyness (117 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 rated for profanity and psychological intensity.

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