The Pursuit of HappYness“The Pursuit of Happyness” released in 2006, has been both a critically acclaimed film and a huge financial success. Deriving its strength from a true story, the film depicts the life of a working class man as he struggles to find happiness even as he battles deep financial and emotional crises. Set in 1980’s San Francisco amid the background of a failing economy and rising destitution, the protagonist Chris Gardener does a delicate balancing act which can either lead him to great riches or land his life (and that of his son) in a turmoil from which they may never rise. The film is the story of absolute hope shining through total terror. It convenes the message that determination and hard work can surmount any challenge thereby rewriting the American dream in modern lingo. The lead roles are assailed by stars that have already proved their mettle numerous times and it is not surprising that Will Smith – who played Chris Gardener, was nominated for an Oscar for his role in this film.
The strength of the story and the power of his character cuts through the script like a blade of steel and the characters alone make evaluating the movie problematic. With their remarkable performances they compensate for any shortcomings that the script might have had. The challenge of the movie was to depict the conflict and tension of Chris Gardener’s life without draining the energy of the viewer. In this they have remarkably succeeded; there is hardly any tension in the whole movie. Intense emotion is brief and impulsive and what would normally be lengthy sob fests are cloaked in revitalizing humor. The mix of contradictory emotions – sorrow-humor, hope-hopelessness, confidence-de motivation confuses even the worst of the critics and to this day no reviewer has been successfully able to classify the “pursuit of Happiness” into any of the standard Hollywood genre.
A movie can be evaluated in many ways and each might produce a different conclusion. Since The Pursuit of Happiness is based on a true story and the general attempt has been to depict the events without adulteration, the first criteria should naturally measure how successful it has been in this. That is, How realistic has the movie been? There are no objective criteria to measure ‘realism’ in a movie. If the character portrayals are real, the story would wander. If both of them appear real, the setting would appear illusionary. The true success of a film is if it has successfully made the viewing audience forget about themselves in the two hours they spend watching the movie.
The pursuit of Happiness is one of those movies that propose to convey a message to the world. In this case, it is one of hope and happiness; and how determined hard work can eliminate the biggest obstacles in the world. Since it has so boldly chosen to be a ‘movie with a message”, the next natural question is if it has succeeded in this.
How effective has been the communication with the audience?‘Realism’ in a movie is a multidimensional effort as it not only requires acting that mirrors daily life but it might also require the reliving of a different time and place. The movie was a convincing portrayal of a man who lived three decades prior to our own. This is implicitly made aware by the Ronald Reagan’s presidential address in the background at the beginning of the film. The remnants of a dying counter culture (Hippies) and the distinct 1980’s fashion styles set the mood realistically and convincingly. The film deserves particular praise for its depiction of the American poor. Chris Gardener’s apartment has only two rooms; hundreds throng the queue in front of the glide memorial for its free meal and room.
Public transportation is the prime medium of travel for all the characters. Hollywood has often been unrealistic in portraying economic classes that they themselves have not experienced. A big star’s house in a big banner movie, no matter how poor he is, is charming, tidy and not affordable for even the middle class in most places. Given this, Muccinni seems to have a good understanding of the ways of the American poor for which he deserves credit.It might be argued that the level of suffering that Chris was made to undergo was herculean for so simple a man and by deliberating making him go through hell, the directors were trying to win him sympathy.
It can also be argued that this puts more emphasis on the character’s trials rather than on the ways he overcame them. Ultimately the question is “has he been made to suffer disproportionally?” Here the answer seems to be yes, as somewhere along the line all of us take a pause to wonder if it isn’t just too much. It was ok for him to lose his savings, wife, car and then to be jailed the night before his interview. After making it through the interview, he gets the job but while in it, he sees the hippie who stole his “time machine” and chases after him. However, this ends in him being hit by a car and losing one of his shoes. Personally, this for me was the moment when I realized that Chris Gardener had done nothing but suffer for the last one hour or so. But given that this is a true story and that despite our skepticism we would not want to discontinue watching it, is a true testament to the acting prowess of Will and Jaden Smith.
Will Smith’s fatherly advice “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything – not even me” has been much quoted and appreciated. It is definitely the motto by which Chris Gardener lives his life but that is not the main message of the film. That message is in the title of the movie – The Pursuit of Happyness – that all men have the right and the opportunity to seek happiness in whatever he is doing as long as it is within legal and ethical boundaries. By his own example, he suggests that determination and hard work are the ways to get there and in the end he does get what he wants (in this case, a new job as a stock broker). However the film is an unbalanced depiction in that the focus was always on the sufferings that he had to go through and much less celluloid time is spent in showing how he overcame it.
This also partly due to the fact that Chris Gardener’s character approaches Godliness in the second half of the film. He is always smiling, never gets angry and when required to cry, he sheds gentle manly tears. This might be his optimism but the all in all, it has to be agreed that the message has been received. Hard work beats Hardships.The movie also has one unintended message that its sends out to the world. The pursuit of Happiness for the central character really translates to the pursuit of money. Money becomes his elixir of life which not only gets him luxury and a house but also promises him the elusive happiness that he so desperately wants.
Isn’t that a dangerous message to be sending to a world that is already reeling from an increased dose of materialism? Maybe so, but there is no denying the fact that in Chris Gardener’s case only more money can save him. He had to be able to pay his rent and put a roof over his son’s head and only more money could have got him those. In summation, the shortcomings of the movie are visible only if you sit up watching it with a torch light; i.e. with the intention of criticizing it. And even then, they are so minor next to the magnitude of the script that they hardly matter at all. Hats off to the team!