Tuesday, November 23, 2010

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (2006): The Elusive American Dream

If I had only read the screenplay for The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), I would have been skeptical that any effort to turn it into a movie would have amounted to much.  To my surprise, the acting of Will Smith (who I have never cared for as an actor) and his real life son, Jaden, make the movie real.  It’s fortunate that there is so much more to a movie than a screenplay.  It’s unfortunate that many movie critics are not astute enough to realize this.  I think the inability of some critics (especially those on the internet) to judge a movie on the whole is why the reception by them to this movie is so mixed.
Chris (Will Smith) lives in San Francisco during the early 1980s and is desperately trying to hold onto his family and his career, and he’s not doing a good job at either.  His wife, Linda (Thandie Newton), works long hours at the laundry mat and is increasingly unhappy about the position she has been put in.  The two have a son, Christopher (Jaden Smith), and the best they can do is to put him into a daycare center they can afford located in Chinatown.  On the outside of the daycare facility is the painted word, “HAPPYNESS,” giving us an idea why the title of this movie contains a misspelling.  Chris sells medical scanners on the side, which net him little money because the scanners are not a practical replacement for x-ray machines.  On the verge of being evicted because Chris cannot sell enough of the machines, Linda gives up on both her husband and son and leaves for New York.  Out of desperation, Chris signs onto for an internship position with a brokerage firm where he cannot expect to be paid for another six months.  He lives off the scant money he makes selling the medical scanners, but this is not enough to allow him to pay the rent.  Thus he and his son are forced to sleep in motel rooms and then missions and occasionally public bathrooms or subway trains until the internship is concluded.  As an added bonus, even if he was able to complete the internship, there was no guarantee that he would be hired - only one of the twenty interns brought in would actually get a job with the firm.  Thus, Chris is forced to outwork the other interns, run to the daycare center to pick up his son, and then get in line at the mission to insure that the two would have a bed for the evening.  Chris is also at the mercy of some well to do white men to determine whether he will actually be hired on.  Mercifully, Chris gets the job.
Now this is the point where the reviews of this movie can be deceiving because this is not the typical Horatio Alger “rags to riches” story.  Yes, Chris eventually did succeed, but that success was emotionally draining.  Before achieving the success he had to be humiliated in almost everyway possible.  Chris was not a success because the system in place allowed him to “pull himself up by his own bootstraps,” as every idiot reviewer seems to be saying.  He pulled himself up despite any system that happened to be in place, and he did it by almost every means possible.  Many reviewers have correctly pointed out that Chris was not always a nice person, yet they still somehow conclude that his journey has been sentimentalized in this movie.  The beauty of this movie is that it is not a romanticized portrait of a man doing what he is supposed to in order to get what he wants.  Instead, it is the portrait of a man who does many things wrong, and yet, because he goes through hell, it is still a man that we pull for.  The realization goes very deep in watching this film that almost everyone in his same position would have decided on another course or else would have faced homelessness.  Therefore, the movie is a complex character study rather than a formula for others to achieve success.
Let me give you some examples of reviewer’ responses to this movie to give an idea of the differing reactions to this movie and its deceptive qualities.  The italics in the below quotes are all mine.
  • The New York Times wrote with balance (if lacking perceptiveness) when it stated: “How you respond to this man’s moving story may depend on whether you find Mr. Smith’s and his son’s performance so overwhelmingly winning that you buy the idea that poverty is a function of bad luck and bad choices, and success the result of heroic toil and dreams.”
  • Movie critic, James Bernardinelli, apparently did not see the performance as so winning when he stated: “This is not the feel-good movie of the season unless you believe that a few minutes of good cheer can redeem 110 minutes of gloom.”
  • Contrast Bernardinelli’s review with that of The Guardian whose reviewer found hope in the film and said: “Will Smith’s new film is an old-fashioned Hollywood heartwarmer: a Horatio Alger-type tale based on the true story of US multi-millionaire Chris Gardner, who experienced hardship and homelessness before he found success.”
  • Peter Sobczynski of efilmcritic.com took umbrage with Smith’s acting performance by pointing out: “You can easily understand why Will Smith would want to play the role of Chris Gardner – it is a role that allows him to weep, wail and suffer mightily until his final moment of triumph in a way that has ‘Oscar nomination’ written all over it.”
  • The critic for The Boston Globe, on the other hand, applauded the understatement contained in the film and in Smith’s acting by stating: “‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ is a curious bird to have landed in this awards-conscious season.  For one thing, Will Smith’s performance as a striving single dad has the grace to not panhandle for an Oscar.  For another, there’s very little self-congratulation about this film, and much that’s uncomfortably dark.”
  • Scott Tobias of A.V. Club sees a right-wing theme to the movie when he says: “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.”
  • The above comment is in serious contrast to the judgment of the World Socialist Web Site (who can hardly be accused of being in bed with the Republicans), which says: “The publicity for the film, which takes its title from the famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence, would lead one to think this is simply another version of ‘You can make it if you try,’ the contention that anyone can succeed in America if he or she makes a sufficient effort.  Happily, the film proves to be something other than a perversion of Thomas Jefferson’s enlightened phrase (‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’).  In [Director Gabriele] Muccino’s movie, the lengths required to achieve economic security testify, in fact, to the elusive and chimerical nature of the so-called American Dream.”
 I did not care for Thandie Newton as Linda in this movie, as she is portrayed throughout as shrill.  I also had to wonder how Chris kept his suit and white shirt looking so good considering that he sleeps in it in public restrooms and subways, sweats in in his dress clothes when trying to run down individuals who stole his medical scanners, and at one point is wearing his suit when he struck by a car.   Nevertheless, Smith and his son make this movie believable by not overplaying the role.  The moviemakers make it real by not delivering us a bunch of cant about this being a common event.  Everyone in the movie audience knows that Chris has a million to one shot at making it because every other avenue of success has been torn away from him.
It may not be cynicism that caused some reviewers to respond so negatively to this film, but many of the critics were seriously off of the mark in any case.  These critics need to at least try to be as imaginative as the one who creates a work of art.  Lack of imagination makes them applaud movies vastly inferior to this one.  Their criticism of a movie needs to also be precise as it serves no purpose if it’s obvious.  Five minutes into this movie and I could already anticipate what critics like Bernardinelli and Tobias, mentioned above, would say about it.  On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to find a few critics who put aside their bias and politics and were able to see this movie as a whole.   They suitably saw something more to this movie than a straight-up morality tale about the awards of hard toil.
April 18, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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