The trouble with most inspirational movies -- which often gets them reclassified as manipulative schlock -- is that their outcomes are too easily predicted. The Pursuit of Happyness goes about matters a little differently, telling its story in retrospect, after the happy ending has occurred -- thereby setting aside the charade of suspense. This lets Gabriele Muccino's film focus on the engrossing details of Chris Gardner's improbable journey, as well as Will Smith's Oscar-nominated performance -- making it a little like a Shakespearean play, where audiences are more interested in how a plot is interpreted than whether it contains surprises. One such engrossing detail is the most vividly used prop since Wilson the volleyball: the bulky x-ray devices Chris drags around like overgrown sewing machines, sometimes losing them, sometimes recovering them again, but always as duty bound to them as he is to his son. As both remnants of a financial miscue and his only potential source of income, they're perfect symbols for his hardscrabble San Francisco existence, which Muccino renders with both grittiness and sensitivity.
Smith produces his greatest depth and range yet, his performance containing an ingenuity to match that of his determined character. But the actor's contributions also extend to his real-life son, Jaden. Some observers saw this casting choice as gimmicky, perhaps a fatal dose of the preciousness informing Smith's 1997 single "Just the Two of Us," an ode to his older son. But not only is Jaden incredibly cute, he's also a chip off the old block, natural and true. That The Pursuit of Happyness was a box-office success is no great surprise to anyone who's followed Will Smith's career. But that he earns it this time through earnest commitment to his craft, rather than a wink and a clever sound bite, is an outcome worth cheering.