Will Smith might be the biggest movie star in the world. If he's not No. 1, he's certainly in the Top Five.
Since his jug-eared, clean-rapping days as the Fresh Prince, Smith has been an incredibly familiar and likable presence. We know about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith and his three children. We know about that episode when he and Jada left the Academy Awards early because their little daughter had taken ill. We've seen him on a hundred talk shows.
Smith is one of the most famous and one of the wealthiest movie stars of his generation -- yet in "The Pursuit of Happyness," we are supposed to buy into his portrayal of a man so financially strapped that he and his son (played by his real-life son) are lining up every afternoon outside a shelter for the homeless, hoping to score a couple of cots for the night.
WILL SMITH as a homeless guy? Come on!
Well, I bought it. I bought every frame of it.
We already know Smith can be funny and charming and heroic onscreen. He even has an Oscar nomination for "Ali" -- but that was more of a glorified impersonation than a full-out performance a la Jamie Foxx's work in "Ray." Now, though, with his work in "The Pursuit of Happyness," Smith serves notice he is not only a genuine movie star, he's a four-star actor. It is a sublime, fully realized performance, and it is worthy of an Academy Award nomination.
"The Pursuit of Happyness" is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, whose rags-to-serious-riches story attracted the interest of dozens of movie producers after he was featured on ABC's "20/20." Gardner was a struggling salesman in San Francisco in the 1980s who reached the depths of financial despair before -- well, see the movie, but you can guess where it's going.
With a touch of gray in his hair and a 1981 mustache, Smith looks more than a little like Jesse Jackson, and his story plays like something out of one of Jesse's better motivational speeches. Though blessed with an analytical brain and an almost relentless work ethic, Gardner finds himself about a half-step ahead of the poverty line in the early 1980s. He spends his days hustling around the Bay area, toting one of the unwieldy bone-density scanners that were supposed to make him rich. Instead, he's lucky to sell one or two of the devices per month -- barely enough to keep the lights on in the shabby, paint-peeled apartment he shares with his beleaguered, terminally exhausted wife Linda (over-played as an emotionally unstable shrew by the normally reliable Thandie Newton), and his irresistibly cute son Christopher (Jaden Smith, who has inherited heaping scoops of his father's charm and talent).
Linda works double-shifts at a laundry and devotes her free time to shrieking at her husband about the string of disappointments choking her to the point of despair. Little Christopher has to be dropped off every morning at a crummy day care center run by an Asian woman who claims that having the children watch "The Love Boat" is educational because "it's about the Navy." Big Chris wears his one good suit every day and tries to sell those expensive, non-essential bone scanners, but it's a losing battle.
And then things go really sour.
Linda finally snaps and moves to New York, abandoning the family. Chris scores a coveted internship with top-tier stock brokerage firm -- but it's an unpaid gig that gives him at best a 5 percent chance to win an actual job at the end of the grueling training program. Parking tickets and the IRS lap up Chris' dwindling resources, and he and his son are booted from the rundown apartment to a cheap motel room -- to the mean streets.
Watching a good man reduced to sleeping with his son on the floor of a men's room is like viewing "It's a Wonderful Life" and leaving before George has his triumphant run through the snows of Bedford Falls. Much of this film is exhausting to watch, as Chris races around San Francisco, always five minutes late, constantly suffering setbacks and embarrassments. The setbacks come one after another after another, illustrating exactly how a smart, hardworking man can become that guy who can't pay his bills and winds up nearly beating up a friend over the $14 the friend owes him.
At times the tugging at your heart is too persistent, as when little Chris reaches out and strokes his dad's chin and says, "You're a great papa." We already know that.
And we're pretty sure we know how things are going to turn out. They don't make a lot of movies (or for that matter do a lot of "20/20" segments) about good guys who wind up homeless and stay homeless. There is almost no way "The Pursuit of Happyness" can be anything but predictable.
Still, when Chris finally, finally achieves a true triumph, it is one of the most moving scenes in any film I've seen this year, with Smith delivering perhaps the single most impressive moment of his film career, with almost no dialogue.
Like children of a certain age who are beginning to doubt the logic of Santa's travel schedule, moviegoers of all ages still want to believe. Every trip to the movies involves the suspension of the disbelief -- the surrendering of outside concerns and the hope that for 90 minutes or a couple of hours, we will be successful in immersing ourselves in a make-believe world in which famous people pretend to be regular citizens of the world.
In "The Pursuit of Happyness," Smith makes it easy for us to suspend that disbelief, and to believe in Chris Gardner.