The Pursuit of Happyness, a movie review

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In a near coma from a holiday meal today, we ventured out to see The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith. My resulting notes below contain some mentions of specific plot details, so if you haven't seen it yet and don't want anything spoiled for you, come back to this post later.

As a cinematic experience overall, the movie was quite well done. Smith and Jaden Smith (his son both in the film and offscreen) filled their roles as Chris Gardner and Christopher Gardner with a glow and depth that is uncommon. The story moved at a constant and engaging pace, always with just enough information to make the plot real, and never too much to make it feel like it was being told to a movie audience. The camera angles were mostly plain and obvious in a way that complements the content of the film just fine, but there were a number of really excellent shots that brought out the layers of emotion and determination so well - Chris and Christopher sitting a ways apart on a bench in the subway, exasperated, desperate, staring off and wondering what's next; the shots of Chris running through the streets of San Francisco with action-movie style camera-work but very believable results; the walks through the floor of a brokerage in chaos, and so on.

Once you get past the technical excellence of the film and the great performances by the actors, I start to feel torn about the messages of the "inspired by a true story" movie and what it's trying to tell us about the pursuit of true happiness. In the context of modern versions of the American Dream and what our culture tells us about happiness, it's an incredible success story. Smith's character Gardner goes from a tenuous employment situation and rocky marriage to some of the lowest lows that a father hoping to provide for his son could encounter. Through his seemingly endless ability to meet any challenge by working harder and a little smarter over and over, Gardner gets the job he needs, finds some balance in his life, and eventually, we are told through end credits, becomes a millionaire.

But within the reality of a sustainable culture, it is far from a storybook ending, and when you start to examine how Gardner actually survived and succeeded, it makes you wonder if one wants to wish his particular kind of success on the millions of people in the United States who are not getting by with low-wage employment or no employment, poor or no housing, desperate family situations, and a system of government and social services that tend to make things worse.

Some of Gardner's last onscreen moments with his wife are arguing about custody of their son as she plans to leave because he can't make ends meet, and we never learn about what happens to her. Is Gardner really a success if their marriage isn't reconciled or if she ended up not so well off and without her son in her life? Gardner's son is witness to a number of horrible things throughout the ordeal; does he turn out okay? Though Gardner's determination is the feel-good part of the movie, it seems to ask us to forget that at various points throughout, he lies, cheats, steals from others (who are also just trying to get by), and uses the threat of violence to get his way - seemingly with little consequence. And perhaps most striking to me was the recurring theme of the benevolent, rich, powerful white man helping Gardner to get a leg up - it happened at every step along the way. There was little overt commentary on the imbalances of power and classist attitudes that perpetuate the cyclical poverty people like Gardner find themselves in; in fact, most all of the "positive" moments in the story involve him joining that system instead of finding some better way of life.

I hope that we are not supposed to hold this story up as a model for anyone who seems to be facing similar situations. Gardner did amazing things for himself and his son, and he did them because he was determined to succeed, not (I think) because he was consciously subscribing to a culture or economic system that was meant to put him down. My hat is off to Will Smith and director Gabriele Muccino for making a great movie showing that man's journey. But I wonder if, in the end, The Pursuit of Happyness isn't just a feel-good film about the ambiguous exception to the rule, where the luck and success that Smith's character finds really is the stuff of movies, while so many others remain stuck, searching, desperate for something even as remotely positive in their lives, let alone a story that relatively privileged theater-goers might pay to see reenacted.

Did you see the film? What do you think?

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