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Looking for a holiday feel-good movie with an inspirational message? A family-friendly tale of father-son devotion that uses the F-word in a heartwarming way? A spiritual flick that embodies some of the highest ideals of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Scientology? Then go see “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Will Smith’s latest star turn.

But be warned: Although this movie may have warmed my heart, it also left me feeling sullied for buying into the uplift.

The movie is inspired by the true story of Chris Gardner, a regular guy who endured joblessness, poverty, homelessness, and the breakup of his marriage as he struggled to take care of his young son and regain his footing on the path to the American Dream. After miraculously landing an unpaid internship with a brokerage firm in San Francisco, Gardner manages through sheer grit and apparently inexhaustible drive to win the one paying job awarded at the end of the program.

In the movie’s final moments, as we watch Chris and his five-year-old son, Christopher (played with amazing grace by Smith’s seven-year-old son, Jaden, in his film debut), walk off into their bright future, the audience learns that Gardner lived wealthily every after–starting his own investment firm and eventually selling it for many millions of dollars. Fade to black.

That’s it? Yes, it’s an extraordinary story, but what happened to the gripping storyline about the gaping chasm between the haves and the have nots? Did the real-life Gardner became a kinder, gentler person after seeing what it was like at the bottom? We never find out. This modern-day Horatio Alger tale eventually becomes unhinged from its larger messages about love, loyalty, and courage in a heartless world, and stops worrying altogether about the poorest among us.

Don’t get me wrong: I was completely seduced by the charming Smith and his adorable son, as they wring genuine angst and pathos out of this tale of one man’s testing. And I mean testing: Gardner’s trials and tribulations make Job’s look tame. In the end, though, I felt seduced and abandoned by this beautifully crafted movie with its garbled message.

Sure, there was faith aplenty in this film–faith in the power of love, faith in oneself, faith in one another–even faith in the Lord, conveyed in a brief but powerful scene depicting a gospel service at a homeless shelter in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Too bad that the faith that saved the day was faith in the “Almighty Dollar.”

— Alice Chasan

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