Generally speaking, one of the consequences of being a movie star is that you forfeit the right to play an ordinary person. Tom Cruise, for example, looks entirely credible when pitted against aliens in War Of The Worlds, but as a blue-collar deadbeat dad from Jersey, not so much. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but Will Smith isn't one of them. The closest Smith has ever come to normalcy is his turn as a serial fantasist in Six Degrees Of Separation; the rest of the time, he's been too busy dealing with his own aliens (Independence Day, Men In Black, I, Robot, et al.) to come back to Earth. The Pursuit Of Happyness represents a belated and calculated attempt to scrape off the glossy movie-star veneer and connect with the everyday struggles of living hand-to-mouth in the big city, but it's too late. Watching his performance here is a little like imagining an American version of Rosetta starring Julia Roberts.
Based on the rags-to-riches story of Chris Gardner, a San Francisco salesman who found an improbable and lucrative second career as a stockbroker, the film opens with Smith on the downward slope. Driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, Smith risked his family's savings on a cache of expensive medical devices that don't fit the budgets of most hospitals and doctor's offices. Tired of his desperate shenanigans, Smith's wife (Thandie Newton) leaves home, forcing him to scrape by while taking care of their young son, awkwardly played by Smith's real-life progeny Jaden. Still grasping onto the American Dream, Smith attempts a radical career move by talking his way into an unpaid internship at Dean Witter, even though there are no guarantees at the end of the line. When his unpaid bills lead to eviction, he and his son are forced to sleep in a homeless shelter and other more unsavory places.
If it weren't such a by-the-numbers piece of Hollywood inspiration, The Pursuit Of Happyness had an opportunity to capture the ground-level realities of living for the next uncertain paycheck. It doesn't give nearly enough credence to the fact that Smith's wife had good reason for leaving him: Risking your family's basic survival on a long-shot dream isn't all that heroic, regardless of his eventual success. The film also fails to address the obvious racial divide between Smith, his co-workers at the firm, and the queasily paternalistic white bosses who determine his fate. Gardner's story is the sort of by-the-bootstraps fantasy that might play well at the Republican National Convention, but soapbox rhetoric does not a movie make.