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No Trivial Pursuit 

Happyness evokes Capra while examining underbelly of American Dream

Wednesday, Dec 13 2006
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My father spent most of his adult life watching one supposedly can’t-miss business venture after another implode, whether it was the company he started to handle the overflow office work from other companies or the “showroom on wheels” (basically a large cargo van with a generator) he invested in during his days as a copier salesman. Firmly believing that you had to spend money to make money, he teetered on the verge of bankruptcy through much of my childhood and adolescence while my mother — ever the sensible one, having settled for what my father derisively termed a “thumper” (i.e., desk) job as a public-school principal — hounded him for child support. Fortunately, things never became quite as dire for my dad (or for the rest of us) as for Chris Gardner, whose life is the subject of the marvelous new film The Pursuit of Happyness. But memories of those years nevertheless came flooding back to me as I watched Gardner (who’s played by Will Smith) race about the streets of 1980s San Francisco, peddling a medical scanner that most doctors regard as a luxury item, asking himself how the very thing that was to have been his ticket to ride instead landed him in financial shackles.

When a movie with a title like this opens with the words “inspired by a true story” emblazoned on the screen and the sound of plucky strings and a tinkling piano on the soundtrack, you fear for the worst. But The Pursuit of Happyness, which was written by Steven Conrad and directed by the Italian filmmaker Gabriele Muccino, isn’t one of those noxious, neo-Dickensian fantasias that tend to arrive during the holiday season — you know, the ones where overpaid studio executives seem to be working through their guilt about being rich by evoking the nobility of the starving class. (Think The Family Man,or Surviving Christmas.) Here, there’s nothing noble about trying to make $250 support a family of three for an entire month, or having to hop out of a taxi midride because you realize you don’t have enough money for the fare. The Pursuit of Happyness may not be one of the great films about American life lived at or near the poverty line, like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts. But for a movie conceived and executed in the mainstream Hollywood idiom, it has uncommon depth and honesty. And the thing it’s honest about is the embarrassment and humiliation of being poor, especially in a place like San Francisco, where the steep hills provide an apt metaphor for the city’s income gap. It’s honest about something else too — that money can indeed buy you happiness. Just ask anybody who’s ever had money and then lost it.

In synopsized form, Chris Gardner’s story reads like an invitation to heavy-handed sentimentality: Abandoned by his wife (Thandie Newton) and left to care for his 5-year-old son (played by Smith’s own son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith), Gardner, who possessed only a high school education but had always been a math whiz, managed to land a coveted slot in the trainee program of the Dean Witter Reynolds brokerage firm, which held out the promise of employment for the program’s best performers. Needless to say, if Gardner hadn’t been triumphant, there wouldn’t be a movie about him. But if The Pursuit of Happyness is a modern-day Cinderella story (as some will dismissively deem it), it’s one in which Cinderella must navigate a minefield on his way to the ball. Indeed, it’s only after Gardner secures his (unpaid) trainee position that his life becomes an absurdist tragicomedy, as he juggles the responsibilities of brokering and fatherhood while scrambling up Telegraph Hill and down to find buyers for his last few bone-density scanners. Unceremoniously evicted from their low-rent apartment, Gardner and his son waylay briefly in a fleabag motel before eventually joining the ranks of the homeless in the shelters (including the legendary Glide Methodist Church) that line the city’s crumbling Tenderloin district. Queue up in time and a clean bed and a hot meal await you. Arrive a few minutes too late and it could mean spending the night on the street, or in the bathroom of a BART station.

click to enlarge Child support: Will Smith, as down-and-out Chris Gardner, wont let his kid down. (Photo by Zade Rosenthal)
  • Child support: Will Smith, as down-and-out Chris Gardner, wont let his kid down. (Photo by Zade Rosenthal)

Muccino, who has never directed a movie in English before, has said that only a non-American could have filmed Gardner’s story because “to really appreciate the essence of the American Dream, you have to be a foreigner.” He may be right: Like Frank Capra, that other Italian émigré whose films were frequently mislabeled as inspirationist hokum, Muccino shows an acute grasp of the dark, desperate underbelly of the American success ethic, and he’s found an ideal collaborator in the gifted Conrad, whose last script, the unfairly overlooked The Weather Man, touched on similar ideas of achievement and self-fulfillment from the perspective of the discontented middle class. (Conrad, who lives in Chicago, far away from the machinery of Hollywood, is one of the only major screenwriters working today who seems interested in exploring uncomfortable realities about American life without resorting to cynicism, pedantry or car-crash metaphors.) Muccino has also drawn a brilliant performance from Smith, who burrows into the part with the same single-mindedness that Gardner brought to his quest for self-improvement, and who pulls off that trickiest of feats — he poeticizes Gardner’s suffering without romanticizing it. Yet even as The Pursuit of Happyness revels in Gardner’s ultimate good fortune, it reminds us that such stories are the exception and not the rule, and that the shelters of the Tenderloin continue to hold few vacancies. When it’s over, you feel like you’ll never look at a homeless person, or a dollar bill, in quite the same way again.

As for my father, he eventually did go bankrupt and, at an age when most are contemplating retirement, started over again behind the counter of a convenience store in Safety Harbor, Florida, where he is now an assistant manager. It’s still a sales job, albeit one where the products are less eccentric and where the customers come to you. He never got rich quick or otherwise, but he did learn a few hard truths about the value of a greenback. And is he happy? As surely as I’ve ever seen him.

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS | Directed by GABRIELE MUCCINO | Written by STEVEN CONRAD | Produced by TODD BLACK, JASON BLUMENTHAL, STEVE TISCH, JAMES LASSITER and WILL SMITH | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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