How hard do actors have to work to charm an audience, making it forget the story and see only them? And can a movie succeed on the basis of an actor’s charm alone? In a time when actors are becoming less of a commodity, these questions are especially relevant to the film “The Pursuit of Happyness,” where Will Smith’s performance makes up for the misguided and exploitative plot.

Smith (Hitch) stars as Chris Gardner, a down-on-his-luck salesman who takes on a competitive internship to become a stock broker. Along the way, his wife leaves him, and since this is strictly a father/son story, Thandie Newton (Crash) as Linda Gardner is totally unsympathetic. When she leaves, Chris assumes care for his son, -Christopher, played by Smith’s actual child, Jaden Smith (TV’s All of Us). The father/son relationship plays exceedingly well on screen, with Jaden’s trust for his real-life father clear in the film.

And trust is basically all the two have. They are evicted from their apartment and later a motel, leaving them to carry their few remaining possessions on their backs. The subpar daycare Chris can afford for his son has the word “happiness” spelled incorrectly on the outside of the building (hence the misspelling in the title).

With no home, father and son make their way to a homeless shelter, but they can’t always get a room. When the shelter is full, the two go to the subway station. Not knowing what to do, Chris imagines a world of dinosaurs for his son. Their only safe place, he tells Christopher, is a cave. This “cave” ends up being a murky bathroom, where, laying on paper towels, Chris holds his sleeping son. It’s one of the film’s most heart-breaking moments.

Even with Smith’s cathartic scene, Chris’s motives become suspect. He takes on an unpaid internship in the hopes he might get the job offered by the company at the end, while he and his son barely get by. If Chris had dropped out of the internship program, found a decent-paying job to support him and his son, would anyone pay to watch the movie?

Of course they wouldn’t. The audience wants to see Chris succeed, but he has to succeed on a larger scale. Chris wants the box seats at the football game, not ones in the nosebleed section. He wants the fast, expensive car, not the bus he takes to work every day. What he seems to chase goes beyond simple comforts — he gambles with both his own and his son’s futures in his pursuit of a lavish lifestyle.

Smith has the buoyant charm and personality to sell this “inspiring” movie. And it’s hard to look past his performance to see the problems underneath, as Smith gives a flawless performance. It’s the story that’s flawed. The bond between father and son is not happiness, but luxury. Chris finally tells the audience what happiness is when he gets the job, not when he’s holding his son.

The Pursuit of Happyness
At the Showcase and Quality 16
Columbia

Rating:2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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