Movie Review: The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) is a well intentioned but utterly boring attempt to inspire.

Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a man on the edge of total collapse. He is out of money, has no income, his wife leaves him, and he has a small child to take care of in the harsh city lights of a (curiously muted) San Franscisco. He does have one source of income though, and Chris shown running and/or lugging around that income (a big white piece of medical equipment) for most of the movie. It is this grating, boring visual that most clearly defines this movie. The film is about Chris's struggle to complete the 6 month *unpaid* internship despite being jailed, evicted, and, worst of all, having to use public transportation, but really it's about him lugging around a big white box.

Attempting a "man vs his environment" kind of drama, the central question of the movie is: will Chris Gardener make it? His setbacks, both large and small, are documented in excruciating detail, and yet I found myself not really caring. Chris's character is likable enough, so why do I find myself not caring? First, Chris is likable but not sympathetic. Secondly, the pacing of the film is thrown way off by a misguided attempt to show off Will Smith's real-life-son's acting talent. Third, this is just banal filmmaking.

One is tempted to describe the movie's style as "understated" but in the end it just feels lazy. This is a movie that chooses to announces in voice over: "This is the part of my life I call...running." Because Will Smith's character is running. Or "This part of my life I call...internship." Because he's about to start an internship. Get it? Or perhaps this filmmaking that has another motive... introducing the (passable) talent of Will Smith's real-life son, who gets more-than-his-fair-share of screen time. The son in this sort of movie should get only enough screen time to establish the attachment and relationship with his father - to underscore to the audience how much the father has to lose. But young Jaden Smith's portion goes far beyond that, to the detriment of the film. Ironically, this could also be to the detriment of young Jaden's career, as this much exposure cries out "you just got the part because of daddy!" Let the kid stand on his own two feet, Will!

Thandie Newton (who was the sexually assaulted black woman in "Crash", the conniving Necromonger wife in "Chronicles of Riddick", and Dr. Carter's African wife on "ER") was totally wasted in this film. She is gorgeous and smart, and she can act (which is rare enough these days). As such she is a precious resource, not to be wasted. She got a chance to emote a little bit in this film, but her character is so quickly dismissed by Will Smith's character that whatever sizzle she conjures just sputters and dies. That's too bad. It didn't help that her character's arc goes from "marriage on the skids; bitter; anxious about the future" to "permanently off camera".

My final problem with the film is the message (or glaring lack of an important part of the message) which makes Chris Gardner's character so unsympathetic. Likable, yes. Sympathetic, no. While I understand the kind of struggle Chris was going through, it all seemed highly preventable. The first mistake was taking such a huge risk on those medical devices. The second mistake was a profound lack of planning once sales started to drop. His wife should never have had to start working double-shifts. She was right to be angry with him for just filing extensions on the tax bill. And to place all the blame on her (as the movie does) for not "having faith" in him and sticking with him isn't exactly fair. Because, if he didn't get the internship (which he does) he still didn't have plan B. And if he didn't get the job from the internship, he also didn't have a plan B. Sure, Mr. Gardner had to learn an important lesson about believing in himself, and going after his dream, and finding work that plays to his strengths. But the movie never shows Mr. Gardner learning a third and very important lesson: don't take stupid risks. Especially when you have a family to support.

Gardner is portrayed as a victim (who weathers this abuse stoically) throughout the movie. Here are some specifics:

1. his landlord kicks him out for not paying rent.
2. his wife leaves him.
3. the IRS confiscates back taxes from his checking account, leaving him penniless.
4. the police arrest him for not paying a huge sheaf of parking tickets
5. some hippie girl steals the expensive equipment he leaves with her when he goes in for a job interview
6. a taxi driver chases after him when he ditches a fair that his prospective employer should have paid.

In every instance these problems were preventable. This movie chronicles a man heroically struggling out of a deep pit. But the movie ignores the fact that he dug his own pit. Chris failed to plan. Chris took huge financial risks and was blindsided by his eventual failure. Chris put his wife in the unenviable position of supporting him and his son. Chris got in the taxi with his future boss, and traded the risk he might have to pay the fare for additional face time with his boss (which paid off). Chris ignored the IRS until it was too late. He ignored the police until they arrested him. He trusted a hippie girl with his financial life. Chris is a man who ignores things and hopes that they will go away, and that lesson doesn't ever appear to be unlearned. If anything, it's reinforced by the message of this movie.

To really be a victim you either need a capricious universe or a villain. The only person victimizing Chris was Chris. The lack of victimhood is death to sympathy. The death of sympathy is the death of drama. Bravo on getting out of a jam, Mr. Gardner, and admiring Thomas Jefferson. But there's another founding father worth looking into, the one who said:

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

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