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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Street smart
A homeless man trades rags for riches in The Pursuit of Happyness
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Smith and son buy into the American Dream.
Smith and son buy into the American Dream.

Will Smith, who got $25 million and a share of the gross for I, Robot, does a pretty good impersonation of a homeless man in The Pursuit of Happyness, Gabriele Muccino's Horatio Alger tale set in the Reaganite '80s. Smith often seems to coast by on his charm; in some ways, he'll always be "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." But this time he kicks it down a notch, lets that self-satisfied grin go a little slack, shows more wariness and weariness in those heavy-lidded eyes. The result is a man who has unshakable confidence in himself but is starting to lose confidence in the rest of the world. Based on the life of Chris Gardner, a Chicago investment banker who scraped the bottom of the barrel while enduring a six-month, unpaid broker-trainee program with Dean Witter, The Pursuit of Happyness shows just how exhausting the pursuit can be.

In fact, running is the movie's running motif. Smith's Gardner, who has sole custody of his 5-year-old son (played by Smith's own son, Jaden Smith), is always on the move. And the faster he runs, the farther he gets behind. We watch as his wife (Thandie Newton, who could also stand to kick it down a notch) leaves him, his car is impounded, he's booted out of his apartment, he's thrown in jail and, after being released, has to spend the night in a public restroom, his son cradled in his arms. And it starts to dawn on us how time-consuming poverty can be. Most men would break under the pressure, and Smith's Gardner comes close a couple of times. But those who break under pressure don't tend to get movies made about them, and the real-life Gardner now owns homes on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive and Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.

The nice thing about The Pursuit of Happyness is that, for a rags-to-riches story, it sure spends a lot of time in rags. (We learn about Gardner's millions in a postscript.) And it doesn't prettify poverty, like movies so often do. When Gardner and his son bed down in that public restroom, we can practically smell the disinfectant. But let's be honest here, Chris Gardner isn't just any old homeless person. He's a guy who, given half the chance, is going to make it; and the Land of Opportunity, after some initial hesitation, gives him that chance. By the way, race appears not to be a factor in his fall and rise, which makes the movie that much more of a Horatio Alger myth. The Pursuit of Happyness ultimately buys into the American Dream, how we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but at least it shows us how hard we have to pull.

I loved the small touches, as when Gardner's wife, at the end of a family meal, pours the tea left in the drinking glasses back into the pitcher, seals it up and puts it in the refrigerator. A penny saved is a penny earned.

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