Although it sometimes suggests the movie equivalent of a peppy self-help book, “The Pursuit of Happyness” comes off as a uniquely depressing portrait of early-1980s San Francisco.
“Don’t ever let someone tell you you can’t do something,” says the occasionally homeless hero, Chris Morgan (Will Smith) to his five-year-old son, Christopher (nicely played by the star’s real son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith). “You want something, go get it.”
It’s supposed to be an inspirational motivating moment, but it feels forced and phony. The Morgans face eviction from their apartment, mom (Thandie Newton) has split for New York, they’re reduced to selling blood and living in a restroom, but Dad always tries to see himself as the little engine that could.
In the end, it’s his determination and willingness to roll over and play the gofer that allows him to get somewhere. But the competition is so fierce, the prize so directly connected to the misery of others, that even the smallest triumphs seem hollow. Standing in line with other homeless people, humiliated by a relentless series of mishaps, the Morgans can get ahead only by trampling on others.
Based on a “20/20” segment about a down-on-his-luck salesman who landed an internship at a stock brokerage firm, the script by Steve Conrad (“The Weather Man”) is a diary-like affair that quickly falls into a singsong pattern. A lucky break is followed by a major setback, a reprieve from the landlord is followed by an arrest for parking tickets, a comfortable work routine is interrupted by a traffic accident.
This approach may be lifelife, but it lacks dramatic shape, and it fails to allow much room for other characters. Newton’s overworked but apparently caring mom insists that the boy should be with his mother, then she suddenly gives up and exits the film.
Equally sketchy are Morgan’s co-workers and a couple of street people who make off with an expensive X-ray-like machine Morgan is trying to sell. Soon this overlong two-hour movie develops a treadmill monotony. For every cloud that has a silver lining, you know there’s a thunderstorm coming.
The talented Italian director, Gabriele Muccino, was hired to tell this story, which in its more poignant father-son moments recalls the post-war Italian classic, “The Bicycle Thief.” Muccino won deserved acclaim for his 2001 film, “The Last Kiss” (which was indifferently remade by Hollywood earlier this year), and he’s drawn a strong performance from his leading man.
Smith is especially good at capturing Morgan’s whiplash changes of mood. The glad-handing, smooth-talking façade he maintains at work is often on the edge of disintegrating into anger and frustration. In a couple of scenes, Smith demonstrates how Morgan’s suppression of his emotions leads to success at the office and trouble at home.
Too bad the other actors don’t get enough screen time to establish relationships with Morgan. If they had been given a chance, perhaps “The Pursuit of Happyness” (the title refers to an annoying misspelling at the boy’s day-care center) wouldn’t feel so single-minded.