By TOM MEEK | February 20, 2007
Not what you’d expect given the title or star Will Smith’s wholesome persona — no, not at all. Based on the real-life travails of Chris Gardner (featured on a 20/20 segment), Happyness is a rags-to-riches yarn that latches onto the dark underside of the journey. Smith plays Gardner in circa 1980 San Francisco. Not much is going right for Chris. His medical-sales business is tanking (he sells bone-density machines door-to-door and no one’s buying), he can’t pay the rent, and his wife (Thandie Newton giving a lot of depth to an unsavory role) leaves him. Not to mention he has a five-year-old son (Smith’s son, Jaden, who steals a few scenes from his dad) to look after. Chris needs money, and fast. The answer arrives when he sees a smiling, happy stockbroker driving a Ferrari. He schemes endlessly to land a job at Dean Witter, and when he does (by solving a Rubik’s Cube and telling a great story about why he showed up to the interview looking like a garbage picker), he learns that it’s an unpaid internship and that at the end of six months only one from the flock of interns will be hired.
That’s just one of the many cruel realities that keep pushing Chris toward the gutter. His daily juggling act is a harrowing ordeal: drop son off at day care, make cold calls at Dean Witter, sell scanners on lunch break, make more cold calls and fetch higher-ups coffee, pick up son and try to find a place to sleep at night. Yes, Chris and his son are homeless throughout most of the story, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. But through it all he keeps his eyes on the prize. His perseverance and resourcefulness are infinite, admirable, even uplifting.
The issues of race and ’80s greed never overtly raise their head, but their sphere of influence is palpable. Smith turns in a career-capping performance, and director Gabriele Muccino ingeniously turns the material inward, cautioning us all to be grateful for what we have, for we’re closer to the edge than we think.