THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS — *** — Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton; rated PG-13 (profanity, violence, brief drugs).
"The Pursuit of Happyness" presents a more subdued, dramatic Will Smith than the one we're used to seeing. Which isn't to say that traces of the more comically charming star don't show up.
It also presents a credible dramatic newcomer — Smith's 8-year-old son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, who makes his first feature-film appearance.
As you might expect, the two Smiths have a natural, believable father-son chemistry, and that character dynamic helps fuel this surprisingly involving and moving drama, which was inspired by real-life events.
"Happyness" is set during the economically depressed 1980s. Will Smith stars as Bay Area salesman Chris Gardner, who is struggling to make ends meet — and a bad business decision has only made things worse. His wife Glenda (Thandie Newton) is working two jobs just to keep her family fed, and they're already months behind on their rent and other bills.
However, Chris does get what appears to be a lucky break when he's been offered an unpaid internship at a stock brokerage. Still, he's one of 20 interns competing for the single available paying job. The odds are against him, and things only worsen when Glenda decides to leave.
Suddenly Chris has to try to fulfill his responsibilities as a father to their son Christopher, cram as much work and studying in during the day, and try to make a few sales on the weekends.
As you may have guessed, this is not the happiest, cheeriest of material. In fact, at times it's very downbeat. And at one point Chris and Christopher are living on the streets.
That said, director Gabriele Muccino and screenwriter Steve Conrad's collaborative effort does feature a worthwhile message about perseverance and hard work paying off, as well as the importance of commitment to parenting.
And this is one of Smith's best performances. He's convincing as a man who may have been stripped of his dignity but who still believes in himself. And his son is an appealing fresh face, offering a performance that is free of the cloying cutesiness so typical of many child actors.
If there is a sour note here, it's that the film vilifies Newton's character to a certain degree, though the actress does try to redeem her a bit.
"The Pursuit of Happyness" is rated PG-13 for brief, strong sexual profanity (one usage of the so-called "R-rated" curse word, and some graffiti), brief vehicular violence (a car-pedestrian collision), and brief drug content (use of hypodermic needles). Running time: 116 minutes.