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One of the most effective rags to riches stories to hit the screens in a long, long while, "The Pursuit of Happyness" tells the story of Chris Gardner, a man of promose and intelligence who struggles through financial turmoil with his wife and small son in tow. When his wife leaves, he and his son must survive through theft, endless rejections and occasional homeless squalor. A permanent position as a stockbroker with Dean Witter, where Chris begins as an intern, is the only hope he has to provide a better life for his family.

We can reasonably expect that this film will be uplifting. What we don't realize is how hard earned that uplift turns out to be. For a big studio picture with a major international star at the helm, "The Pursuit of Happyness" is a fairly unflinching portrait of poverty. There are a few nagging details that are absent, both mundane -- how does he wash and press his suits? -- to more severe -- why aren't we shown Chris looking for any other work he can find for the security of a regular paycheck? But what it gets right -- the fear, anxiety, danger, hopelessness -- feels ever present and rings true.

Will Smith is a wonder in the film. Much like Tom Cruise's turn in "Jerry Maguire", Smith (who has the same invincible and slightly arrogant quality as Cruise) plays a man who should be a winner in life, but just finds defeat at every turn. This may be his first performance without a hint of hotshot attitude. And you can read a surprisingly moving mixture of defeat and defiance in his every facial expression.

His son in the film, Jaden Smith, is also his son in real life. The camera takes to the boy as naturally as it does to his father. I wish there was more of him in the film's first hour; it seems that during this time too much attention is paid to the conflicted wife's story and not enough is invested in Chris' relationship to his son, which dominates the pictures through it's last half.

Still, these are minor squabbles with an otherwise excellent, heartfelt film. You really feel the degradation and inhumanity of the streets throughout. And there a moments that will stick with you a long time, including a haunting subway terminal sequence (featuring a plot device as effective here as it was in "Life is Beautiful") and the barely bottled intensity of Will Smith's performance at the film's closing moments. B+

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