Will Smith runs after a dream.
How It Rates: ****
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith
Red Flags: Mild Language -- Brief Mention of the F-word
Horatio Alger wrote scores of novels in the nineteenth century lauding success through hard work and determination. He would've loved the true story of Chris Gardner, who went from broke to broker in early 1980's San Francisco. Gardner went on to form his own firm and write his autobiography, on which this film is based. But whereas Alger later drew condemnation for accusations of child abuse, Gardner's overwhelming goal is to provide for his five-year-old son.
Will Smith slips effortlessly into Gardner's character, a self-employed salesman desperately trying to sell bone density scanners doctors don't need. His wife (Thandie Newton) is working double shifts at a laundry. Overdue bills have the family on the brink of financial disaster, driving a wedge into the marriage and threatening the welfare of their son Christopher (Jaden Smith, Will's real-life son). Gardner already dislikes his young one's day-care, where kids watch TV and "happiness" is misspelled in a mural outside the front door next to an unprintable graffiti slur.
One day, after another fruitless attempt to sell a scanner, Gardner sees a man roll up to the curb in a sports car and asks how he got it. The answer: stock broking. Gardner decides to end his dead-end job and try for the big money, putting everything on the line for a Dean Witter internship that carries no salary and no guarantee of employment.
The dilemmas Smith's character tackles are both heart wrenching and exhilarating. Gardner has lost his car, so he literally lives life on the run, trying to get to a sales pitch, an interview, the bus, or some guy who snatched one of his scanners. This is clearly the "pursuit" part of the title. In one scene, he is hit by a car and angrily refuses an ambulance because he needs to get back to work -- a paramount display of Gardner's determination. He runs to a nearby store to write down a phone number when he can't find a pencil. He loses his house and his hotel room and nearly his sanity, but his dream refuses to die.
He can't let it die, especially in front of his son, who we sense has some knowledge of Daddy's difficulties but is shielded from most of the truth. Gardner takes great care not to burden his child with adult difficulties. "Are you happy?" he asks at one point. "If you're happy, I'm happy." You will not see any father-to-son movie talks about life's troubles. Christopher, on the other hand, lends his father inspiration in the form of wisecracks and innocent insight, such as when they talk about the difference between "probably" and "possibly."
Will Smith's son wasn't a shoo-in for this role. He auditioned with at least 20 others and earned it. The father and son chemistry is perfect, and it doesn't detract from the film. Jaden steals a requisite number of scenes, but those scenes are not there for cuteness. Christopher is not a Cosby kid but a tough, smart idealist.
The whole film is inspirational and genuine because it doesn't overdose on emotion. Every time you think Smith's character is going to break down into an unchecked rage born of frustration, he bottles it back up and keeps running. That's not to say you won't get emotional watching him. I did, and that's genuine, too.