The Pursuit of Happyness (12A) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Will Smith does the workingman's blues in this truth-based tale of aspirational America. He plays Chris Gardner, a family guy struggling to get by in San Francisco during the economic squeeze of the Reagan years.

Failing in his salesman job and abandoned by his wife (Thandie Newton), Gardner lands an internship at a brokerage firm and proceeds to bust a gut trying to get a fulltime position; in the meantime, money's too tight to mention as he and his young son (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) live hand-to-mouth at homeless shelters and hostels around the city.

Director Gabriele Muccino coats this picture of hardscrabble living with gritty realism, a mood that Smith continually undermines by playing Gardner as a paragon of endurance and saintly dad - Newton as his helpmeet could hardly be more shrewish and unmotherly - and by descanting the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson in an entirely unnecessary voiceover. The racial divide (far more black faces than white in the homeless queues) is ever present but curiously unemphasised: is it considered too obvious a point to make?

By the same token, one wonders whether an American audience will notice that Gardner's struggle hasn't really been about the pursuit of happiness (the misspelling is explained) but the pursuit of wealth, and that his reward is to be patronised by a roomful of smug white men.

For an inspirational story it drags terribly, and whenever Smith faces another setback one can detect almost the spirit of a public information film nagging the audience: look, people, the American Dream doesn't come for free. Pardon me for not feeling uplifted.

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