Will Smith doesn't seem the likeliest candidate to play a desperate, struggling man. Whatever the role (love coach, alien fighter, Ali), he projects speed and good times, an almost aerobic self-confidence. But in The Pursuit of Happyness, which is set in San Francisco in 1981, at the dawn of the age of go-go capitalism, Smith doesn't just wear a few flecks of gray in his hair. He slows himself down, playing a man who awakens to the reality that life is nickel-and-diming him to death. It's a beautiful and understated performance, one that hums with a richer, quieter music than Smith has mustered before.
What hooks you in this shrewdly touching movie, based on a true story, is how specific it is about one man's economic perils. Smith's Chris Gardner is an earnest fellow in his late 30s who sells medical equipment or, rather, one particular item, a high-density bone scanner that he hawks, with middling success, on a freelance basis. His mistake was to invest his savings in these contraptions, and now he's stuck, toting them around town like oversize typewriters. His marriage has fallen apart, and when the prickly, impatient Linda (Thandie Newton) takes off, leaving Chris and his young son (played by Smith's son Jaden with a sly-eyed lack of fuss that matches nicely with his father's), he applies for the internship program at Dean Witter, where he'll compete to be a stockbroker. Smith makes Chris a go-getter with a hint of sadness a bit of a fuddy-duddy, but a smart, dogged one. (He gets his foot in the door by solving a Rubik's Cube.)
In The Pursuit of Happyness, we don't just know Chris' dreams. We know his bank account, his tally of parking tickets, his back taxes. The fact that he's African-American is there at the margins he would surely have gone to college had he come from a less hardscrabble background but the real issue is the subtler one of class mobility in America. Since the internship is unsalaried, Chris is forced to survive by other measures, and what this means is that the job is really geared to people who've already attained middle-class solidity. Chris has to pretend to be something he's not, and the power of Smith's acting is in the gentle, mounting fury with which he absorbs a hundred misperceptions and slights.
As compelling as the film is, it does have a rather single-minded, one-ordeal-after-another, Murphy's Law quality. Yet the director, Italy's Gabriele Muccino, lends a humane touch even to the running joke of Chris getting his bone scanners stolen, and the plot is an inexorable chain of money logic: Chris' escape from a cabbie he can't afford to pay, his looming tax crisis, his move to a hotel and, finally, a homeless shelter. The lower he falls, the more Smith endows him with a ragged nobility and will. The Pursuit of Happyness speaks eloquently to the anxieties of our own time, when staying afloat, let alone movin' on up, has rarely been tougher.