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The Pursuit of Happyness Reviews

Will Smith goes from an action hero with a great Muhammad Ali impression to a skilled actor of surprising subtlety in this moving but politically disconnected drama based on stockbroker Chris Gardner's real-life homeless-shelter-to-boardroom story. San Francisco, 1981: Unlike his own absentee father, Chris (Smith) is determined to provide for his wife, Linda (Thandie Newton), and their young son, Christopher (Smith's real-life son, Jaden). But he's gotten himself into a deep financial hole: Chris and Linda invested their life savings in a shipment of portable bone-density scanners, which Chris is now having trouble unloading. While Linda toils away at a laundromat, Chris drags each impractically pricey machine around like a millstone in hopes of finding a successful doctor unscathed enough by the current recession to afford one. When Chris learns that the fancy red Italian sports car he sees parked on the street belongs to a broker, and that the prestigious brokerage house Dean Witter Reynolds offers a free but highly competitive six-month training program to select candidates (only one of whom will be offered a position at the firm), Chris suddenly envisions a new life for his family. Undeterred by the fact that he never went to college, he uses his winning combination of charm and persistence to talk his way into the program. But staying the course turns out to be harder: Chris must still find time to sell his machines to support his family and, after Linda leaves in disgust, Chris and Christopher are forced to move first to a motel, then to a series of dingy homeless shelters. Throughout, Chris' eyes remain steadily fixed on the prize. Smith gives a beautifully modulated performance, but for a movie that starts out with shots of sharp-dressed business types literally stepping over the city's street people (all of whom turn out to be either crazy or thieves), it refuses to explore the way a system that benefits one group may actually keep others down, particularly in a time of economic recession. Far from proving the reality of the Horatio Alger myth it peddles, Chris Gardner's story is worth celebrating precisely because he managed to beat the odds stacked so high against him. Steve Conrad's screenplay is also curiously but insistently silent on the subject of race. Unlike SOMETHING NEW or even TRADING PLACES, two sharp comedies that deal frankly with the issue of being black in the overwhelmingly white business world, the film makes it seem as if the only obstacles Chris faces are a lack of a college education and the fellow poor who keep stealing his scanners. Those obvious shots of affluent-looking black extras walking in and out of frame ensure that when Chris tells his son that he must never let anyone tell him he can't do something, we know he's not talking about the racial discrimination experienced by many African Americans — college grads included. And while Thomas Jefferson may have been morally opposed to slavery, he still owned 200 black men and women and probably wasn't thinking of people like Chris when he declared that all men are free to preserve their liberty and pursue happiness. Nonetheless, Chris — and the movie — quotes him without a shred of irony or bitterness.