Call it “Will Power” or “Strength of Will,” however you slice it Will Smith has had a remarkable career. He’s had number one hit records and a long running sitcom; he can flip flop from violent action movies to romantic comedies, from drama to animated cartoons. The only entertainment field he hasn’t conquered is porno, and I’m sure it’s not because he wouldn’t be good at it, he’s probably just too modest. This Christmas season sees him hand in his strongest acting performance since Ali.
In The Pursuit of Happyness Smith plays Chris Gardner, a down-at-the-heels family man trying desperately to keep his family together in early 80s San Francisco. A get rich quick scheme isn’t going well and his wife is tired of living hand to mouth. A chance encounter with a successful stock trader and his skill with a Rubik’s Cube become his ticket to a different world—but first he must intern at a brokerage house for six months with no pay. In short order his wife leaves him, he fights for the custody of his son, he gets evicted, thrown in jail and his one form of income, these bulky bone density gizmos he tries to sell door to door, gets stolen.
The situation is bleak and only Gardner’s sheer strength of will prevents him from going over the edge. I hate to say it but so far this story sounds like the typical inspirational “Based on a True Story” twaddle that clogs up the multiplexes this time of year but there is a difference and that difference is the abovementioned Mr. Smith.
The movie has a tendency towards the maudlin, the easy sentiment, but Smith’s lead performance elevates the entire film. The inherent sense of decency he brings to the role of a man bloodied but not beaten by life shines through. He has the exhausted posture of a person who is fighting disappointment, doing his best not to throw in the towel and give up. In this performance is a certain kind of pride and dignity that audiences will relate to.
The Pursuit of Happyness is a crowd-pleaser that succeeds because of one very good performance.