We were just standing out there in this place of broken dreams. Of extreme poverty. And it washed over me that the greatest poverty is the poverty of ideas. Chris was equally impoverished as these people, but he never had the poverty of ideas. He was rich with belief. Rich with faith.
–Will Smith, Sharon Waxman, “No Robots, No Aliens and No Safety Net” (New York Times 5 November 2006)
Of the many sad scenes in The Pursuit of Happyness, the saddest might be when Captain America is left behind. Christopher (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) has been hanging on by threads to his five-year-old dignity and hope. But though he wants badly to trust his father, to believe that their current homelessness is just temporary, it’s getting harder by the day. And then one afternoon while running for the bus, he drops his favorite toy. Dad won’t let him stop or go back. Christopher doesn’t make a fuss, but his smooshed up little face reveals his despair. The shot cuts to Captain America on the pavement, receding into smallness as the bus pulls away. It’s so sad.
Pursuit of Happyness indulges in such sentimental moments more than a few times. And while its great big heart is surely in the right place, and it spends just enough time contemplating little Smith’s perfectly poignant expressions, the movie has a hard time recovering from these moments — especially when it pairs them with its other favorite shots, in which Christopher’s dad Chris (Jaden’s dad Will) is running down a sidewalk full speed. The action images suggest the weak hold Chris has on his life, as he’s always late for wherever he needs to be, and the looming cost of that lateness is always more than he can bear. But they also indicate his drive and strength. He’s a movie hero, after all.
Set in 1981 San Francisco, Pursuit begins as Chris and his wife Linda (Thandie Newton) are having trouble. She works double shifts doing hotel laundry; he’s trying to sell bone density scanners (specialty medical machines that, as Chris admits in voiceover, are too expensive for most doctors to buy). Ronald Reagan speaks on a background television as they argue: “The federal budget is out of control and we face runaway deficits,” intones the president as Linda wonders when Chris will pay the taxes. Lining up Chris’ situation with that of Reagan’s “nation” is deceptive here, given that Chris is a black man without a job, and the administration’s economic policies were notoriously injurious to working- and underclass black men.
At the same time, though, the context is fitting, as Chris is a great believer in the “American Dream.” Linda is demonized repeatedly, by her mad face, her cigarette-smoking, and her dismissal of Chris’ latest efforts with a grim “Whatever.” By time she abandons the family, Chris is looking pathetic but also so dedicated and noble that her agreement to leave Christopher with his unemployed father seems more inevitable than shocking.
Her departure is precipitated by Chris’ announcement that he has taken an unpaid internship with Dean Witter: “Salesman to intern’s backwards,” she observes, angrily. Yes, but. Having seen brokers descend the stairs from their office in thrilling slow motion, Chris is convinced that they’re all “damn happy,” an idea for which he provides no specific definition but apparently, for him it has everything to do with money. He’s smart and good with numbers, he figures, having proved that much by solving a Rubik’s cube in front of a Dean Witter broker who then becomes his champion. As he studies and scrapes by, barely earning enough each week to pay for meals, Chris tells himself he will soon be walking in slow motion and smiling, along with all those white people he saw on the Dean Witter stairs.
You know he’ll get there, because Pursuit is “inspired by” the story of the real Chris Gardner, who not only ended up with his own brokerage firm, which he eventually sold for millions, but also wrote a book and told his story on Oprah. En route to his riches, however, Chris puts cute Christopher through something of a wringer: evicted from their apartment, they scale down to a motel, until Chris can’t make that rent either, and they’re sleeping in homeless shelters or, on one occasion, a subway station bathroom. This sad scene features alternating shots of Chris’ tear-streaked face and Christopher’s deep-sleeping form, as someone pounds on the door, Chris’ foot extended to keep the intruder at bay. While he’s the protective father here, he’s also particularly abject: if his gamble had not paid off, he might have eventually been cited for child endangerment.
Chris’ tears signal his understanding of the plight he’s made for Christopher, as well as his resolve to tough this out. His reactions to Christopher’s tears run a gamut from anger to horror to despair: when the child pouts after dad tells him he’ll never be a pro basketball player or cries at being locked out of their motel room, dad looks aptly abject, apologizes immediately, and assuages his son’s fears. “Don’t ever let someone tell you you can’t do something,” he instructs. “People gotta dream. You gotta protect it.” The boy looks up, aware of his dad’s inconsistencies (later he sees dad lying to a potential client, manipulating an invitation to a 49ers game, and his quizzical look suggests he’s learning another sort of lesson).
Repeatedly, Chris solicits his son’s approval. “Do you trust me?” he asks, and the boy invariably says, “Yes, I trust you,” granting Chris another day to pursue his happiness. This concept of trust is central to Chris’ self-image. His voiceover ponders unironically what he sees as the great American meritocracy, by way of Thomas Jefferson’s phrasing for the Declaration of Independence. He’s especially impressed that the founding father was wise enough to see the “pursuit” was all that might be deemed a right, at least for those considered entire people at the time (as opposed to, say, those considered 3/5ths people).
It’s useful for Chris’ rather Reaganite worldview that the film doesn’t deal with racism, on institutional or individual levels. Here again, Chris’ repeated races through crowded streets to make appointments externalize his perpetual internal crisis. At one point, he’s actually hit by a car, slammed hard and thumping onto the hood, arriving at his office with a bruises and a limp and without a shoe, the predictable jibes from the white interns annoying but also telling: he’s not one of them, he has to run for the bus. And yet, the running man shots also evoke other Will Smiths — the one who trained in snowy streets as Ali, or whose shirt popped open as he chased criminals in Bad Boys. Their physicality was a show of power, as opposed to an indication of class.
In Pursuit, class can be overcome, of course. Insisting that all opportunities are available to everyone, the movie has Chris running to catch something, to triumph over adversity and prove that the system works, at least for those who are, as Smith says, “rich with faith.” It’s pretty to think so. As quick and resolute as Chris may be, he’s still caught up in the fiction around him, The Pursuit of Happyness, which is not nearly so smart.