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Thursday, Dec. 14, 2006 05:15 am

The enduring power of hope

Will Smith shines in true-life rags-to-rich tale

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The Pursuit of HappynessRunning Time 1:57Rated PG-13

It’s hard to think of a recent film that’s shown a man’s struggle to succeed as honestly and poignantly as The Pursuit of Happyness, the rags-to-riches true-life tale of Chicago investment banker Chris Gardner, does. Gabriele Muccino has taken a compelling story and outstanding cast to direct one of the year’s top motion pictures, an inspirational film that’ll convince you that there’s still an American dream worth having.

Will Smith stars as Gardner, a man down to his last penny after blowing all of his savings on a medical device that he can’t sell. As creditors hound him, his wife (Thandie Newton) abandons him, and Gardner is forced to raise his son, Christopher (Jaden Smith), on his own. Soon the father and son are evicted from their apartment and wind up in homeless shelters. Yet, despite the odds stacked against him, Gardner enrolls in an intern program at a high-profile investment firm. The most promising student in the training program gets a job at the firm but must pass numerous tests and also demonstrate an ability to generate news business. The interns receive no pay during their training.

Although one might dismiss Happyness as a Horatio Alger fantasy with a Frank Capra twist, the presentation of Gardner’s story is close to accurate. (The most important alteration is that his son was an infant during their period of homelessness, not a 6-year-old.) None of the elements presented is sugarcoated in any way, and Smith dispenses with the grandstanding that has characterized his previous performances. Smith is discovering the power of subtlety, and it shows in this, a completely affecting turn. Gardner’s despair, anxiety, and, most important, his sense of hope are present in every moment he’s in onscreen, each of these feelings conveyed with conviction and honesty. 

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