The Pursuit of Happyness comes out on DVD this week and although I have put it off doing so for a long time, I knew that I was eventually going to have to say something about it because the film has a lot of significance for me personally. I remember when I first saw the trailer, I said to myself, "That's a film I'll be watching with my dad," and I was right. We got to see it together at the theatre and we both got pretty emotional over it. The reason being that it was basically our story that we were seeing represented up there on the screen.
Back in the mid-70's, while my father was a musician on the road, he met my mother, a singer. They got married, had me and then when I was 9 months old, my mother left. For three years it was just the two of us travelling the road and sleeping in hotel rooms until he met and married a wonderful woman who became my real mother and my dad proceeded to get into the budding video business (I also got two brothers and two sisters out of the deal, which is pretty cool). Incidentally, my biological mother has since tried to become a part of my life but the results have proven (at best) awkward.
Being that I was so young I have very little memory of what actually transpired during the period of time that it was just me and my dad. I do have a vague memory of going to sleep in a hotel bed one night (I seem to recall that we stayed at the Holiday Inn a lot) while my dad was watching something on the TV set. He's also told me that there were times when we would have to sleep in his manager's office (me in my crib and him on the floor) because he couldn't even afford a hotel room. Whatever else happened, though, he said he always made sure he had enough money to buy for food for me. That was his priority. Whatever mistakes he might have made, I came first in his life. He always tried to do the right thing by me.
Pursuit of Happyness is also a story about a father who, though he is certainly far from perfect, struggles to do what's best for his son. Will Smith, in a magnificent performance which earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination, plays Chris Gardner, a man whose wife leaves him and who basically ends up living "on the street" with his son, Christopher, as he enrolls in a stockbroker internship program. As it turns out, Christopher is played by Smith's own real-life son Jaden, and their relationship is incredible. The off-screen affection brings an intimacy to their on-screen chemistry that perhaps would have been lacking had they cast just another cute moppet in the role (not to mention the fact that the kid is awful good).
As the publicity proudly proclaims, the film was "inspired by a true story" and actually tends to "ring true" quite often. Chris Gardner, for example, is a complex character. Some might find to be a little too "angelic," but he he certainly has his faults. At one point Chris' fear and frustrations cause him to start yelling at his son and while some people might find this to be a miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers as it could make Chris "unsympathetic," it actually makes him far more believable. Chris Gardner is a good man, but he is a real man. This was something my dad mentioned that to me as we left the theater. "You know, that is very true to life, Damian," he said. "When you're down and scared, you will take it out on the people you love." This is one of many examples of the film's insight into human nature.
In another one of the film's profound scenes, Smith and his son have a heart-to-heart conversation where the boy asks, "Did Mom leave because of me?" Any child who has ever had to endure the separation of their parents thinks this at one point or another. Although I anticipated Smith's response to be: "No, Mom left because of me, not you," the film actually has a better answer. Smith says: "Mom left because of MOM and you didn't have anything to do with that." This is absolutely right.
As far as I'm concerned, though, Smith's most sublime moment in the film comes near the end when after many weeks of working in the program, he discovers that he will get the job he has been working so hard to get. The subtlety in Smith's facial expression as he struggles to contain the immense emotion inside of him is remarkable. Tears start to well up in his eyes, he politely thanks his new "bosses" and quickly leaves the building. The subsequent image of Smith walking amidst a crowd of faces is one of the few painstakingly accurate depictions of overwhelming joy, gratitude and relief that I've ever seen in a film. He rushes immediately to the daycare where his son is playing, picks him up in his arms and just holds him tightly as he weeps. Despite all of the struggle and hardsip, the times of fear and doubt, he has achieved his goal and, what makes it even more rewarding, he has someone to share it with. He is not alone in the world. He has someone to love. Someone who loves him. Not to get too "mushy" here, but no matter how poor Chris Gardner may have gotten, he was already the richest man in the world.
*END OF SPOILER*
Like its central character Pursuit of Happiness is not perfect. It does have its flaws (it tends to push the boundaries of "coincidence" a few too many times for my taste) and, although it is technically competent, it is not brilliant. The cinematography, the editing and the music are all effective but not particularly memorable. The real reason to see the film is for the performances of Will Smith and his son (and not to forget Thandie Newton who has a somewhat thankless role as the mother). Also, it's worth watching simply for the wonderfully touching and life-affirming story that it tells. It is not a great movie, but it is a very good movie and there's a lot of truth and sincerity contained within its frames. It has far more "heart" than a lot of movies out there and although it feels at times like a typical Hollywood "tear-jerker," take it from someone who knows, life can often resemble a good, uplifting Hollywood movie.