The new Will Smith vehicle, "The Pursuit of Happyness," begins with the cautiously worded phrase "inspired by a true story." When confronted with this tepid claim, one does well to remember that the same could be said of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, itself inspired by the rise of the Nazis and their subsequent assault on civilization.
Whether inspired by a true story or not, "The Pursuit of Happyness" the tale of a father's desperate attempt to pull himself and his son out of poverty is emphatically not a true story. It mostly inhabits a familiar world of wish-fulfilling make-believe, but only uncomfortably. It aspires to a grittiness it hasn't the stomach for and thus gets stuck in a narrative no-man's land between fantasy and realism. To some extent, however, Smith's bottomless capacity for charm saves the movie from itself.
Smith plays Chris Gardner, a driven, if unlucky, San Francisco salesman who has sunk all his limited resources into a breakthrough medical device that turns out to be overpriced and almost unsellable. It's 1981. Reagan is on the tube grimly announcing a now almost whimsically small federal budget deficit of $80 billion. But Gardner is more concerned with his own debts, which his frazzled wife (Thandie Newton) reminds him of at every opportunity. They can't even pay to send their son (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Will Smith's son) to a sketchy day-care center, whose misspelled motto lifted from the Declaration of Independence gives the movie its name.
As happens repeatedly in this urban fairy tale, disaster and opportunity present themselves arm in arm. The wife skips town just as Gardner applies for an unpaid internship at Dean Witter, where he hopes to make his bones as a stockbroker. The balance of the overlong film charts the fall of Gardner and son into homelessness, even as future prospects of success beckon.
Italian director Gabriele Muccino (in his first English-language feature) and screenwriter Steve Conrad ("The Weather Man," 2005) have sensed that the story could be told two ways: as a slick and snappy inspirational tale, or as a bitter chronicle of hardship in the midst of mindless affluence to which, in a theme-muddling note, our hero aspires. (Gardner is sold on his new trade by a chance encounter with a stockbroker driving a Ferrari.) Instead of choosing one or the other, they've tried to split the difference.
In the Dean Witter sequences, we get standard-issue Hollywood office fare. Gardner is a honey-tongued paragon of pluck, beset by a waspish taskmaster (Dan Castellaneta) and well-meaning but distant executives who don't begin to understand his troubles. Out of the office, we often seem to be in another kind of film entirely. The camera lingers on scenes of urban desolation. We get shot after shot of Gardner lugging his portable bone-density scanner around in hopes of making a sale, as if it were a symbol of the errors and bad luck dragging him down (which, alas, it seems in fact to be). Not one, but two, of these precious gadgets on which Gardner depends get stolen. Desperate chases ensue. Hunger threatens. We're left with a queasy mix of "Working Girl" (1988) and Vittorio De Sica's "The Bicycle Thief" (1948).
None of these problems can be laid at the door of the actors. Will Smith's performance here recalls his outing in "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993), where he likewise played an aspirant to the high life, trading on smarts and charm but fired by a gnawing desperation. When Gardner is faced with his most dreadful obstacles someone cutting into line in front of him at the homeless shelter, for instance Smith lets that desperation through with a startling ferocity. Smith's son, too, handles his role well, navigating a fine line between lovable ragamuffin and wisecracking skeptic.
In one respect, the rather grueling, awkwardly shifting narrative works to the movie's advantage. As the end approaches, we, like Gardner himself, are pretty exhausted. And that softens us up for the moment when, at long last, a piece of good news finally arrives. Smith's eyes brim with pent-up tears. Even if it's against your better judgment, it's hard not to follow suit. (PG-13) 117 min. **