The show: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Now, a number of you are smirking to yourselves (if you’ve not progressed to full-fledged scoff, that is), and that’s OK. But I can almost guarantee there are also at least a few of you who, without further prompting, can guess precisely the scene and episode I’m talking about. (I suppose, as well, I must grudgingly allow for the possibility that there are among you those who don’t remember Fresh Prince, though this thought quietly horrifies me — as does the fact that the show now reruns on Nick at Nite, alongside Roseanne and in time slots once reserved `and not so long ago, it seems to me` for such fare as Green Acres and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Ah, well. At least you can catch up.)
The scene I recall so vividly is from the fourth-season installment “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” (thanks, Wikipedia!), in which teenaged title character Will Smith’s long-absent father Lou (played, interestingly enough, by Ben Vereen) comes back, promises to make up for lost time, and then cuts out again at the last minute. The last moments — wherein Will cycles through detachment and rage before buckling under the painful, familar weight of rejection — are well-written, committed, and heartbreaking, and introduced young me to Will Smith the Serious Actor. (Youtube it: “fresh prince father.”)
Problem was, much like Vereen’s Lou, Serious Will didn’t seem to show up often enough thereafter. Smith gained acclaim for 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation, but it would be 2000 before the next non-action flick, and the fairytale-ish The Legend of Bagger Vance and Oscar-try Ali fell short of the bare earnestness of his best small-screen work.
Enter 2006 and The Pursuit of Happyness. Based on a jaw-dropping, smack-yourself-to-believe-it true story, Happyness stars Smith as Chris Gardner, a doggedly determined parent and salesman beset by near-unimaginable hardship. His product isn’t selling, his broken-down wife (the talented Thandie Newton, who is appropriately threadbare and terrifying here) doesn’t believe in him, his bills aren’t getting paid. When his situation is further complicated (homelessness, single-parenthood, a nigh-unbearable panoply of obstacles and frustrations), the film becomes a nailscraping struggle between his drive to overcome for himself and his son and the constant, looming spectre of failure.
From the opening tugs of the piano-tinged score by James Horner (Field of Dreams and The Land Before Time themes, anyone?), Happyness makes no bones about its intentions. You’ve got the father-son dynamic, the inspirational, truth-based, underdog-and-then-some story, the expertly handled gusher moments — if you’re slightly more a soft touch than, say, a T-1000, prepare to spring a leak (and, depending on your disposition, scramble to cover it up). Sure, you see it all coming — or most of it, at least. But it’s to the great credit of Smith and co-star/8-year-old son Jaden (who, besides being cuter than a puppy fart and sort of looking like the Boondocks kid, is eminently, impressively believable) that the considerable poignant bits don’t feel overtly manipulative. Papa Smith, meanwhile, gives perhaps the most vulnerable and affecting performance of his big-screen career: There are emotional beats, particularly toward the end, that cannot be played more perfectly than he plays them here.
Happyness is not a flawless film (though, thankfully, they do explain that pesky “y”), but considering what it aims to be, it’s hard to ask for much more than what it gives — and harder to disparage anything that gets to you as much this one does, talk of allergies and specks-in-the-eye notwithstanding. Certainly, there are more complex, edgier films. But come on, tough-ass. You could use some holiday healing. Besides, POH is a rarer type still. It’s that sort of film that, seen at the right moment, can seem very much like a well-timed and personal gift.