Thursday, March 10, 2011

"The Pursuit of Happyness": A (Late) Review

I saw this 2006 film on DVD the other night and have been thinking about it here and there ever since. My first impression was that it was one of the most agonizingly suspenseful movies I have ever seen, and I don’t mean this in any positive sense. The relentless parade of increasingly unfortunate events suffered by the main character Chris Gardner (Will Smith) and his young son had me squirming in my seat for much of the picture. I kept hoping—in vain as it turned out—that the next incident would signal an upturn in Mr. Gardner’s fortunes. Only in about the last three minutes of the film were we rewarded for our positively saintly patience with some kind of redemption.

The story goes something like this: Chris Gardner is a salesman with big dreams, as in dreams of $$$$$$$$$$$. He and his wife use all of their savings to buy a whole bunch of bone scanning machines, which Gardner then tries to hawk to doctors, clinics, hospitals. As the movie opens, sales are not going well, the rent and bills are not being paid, and the Gardners, who have a very young son, are not getting along. Gardner desperately tries to hold everything together with his salesman-like bravado but the family’s life continues to unravel. The wife leaves, Gardner and the son get kicked out of their apartment and then out of the motel they are living in and end up sleeping in a shelters, and he loses a couple of bone scanners and has his bank account cleaned out by the IRS.

One day, in the midst of these trials, our feckless hero spots an expensive red imported sports car parked by the curb; the owner turns out to be a stockbroker. Chris decides then and there that despite the ridiculous odds against success—if he succeeds in becoming one of twenty interns working for Dean Winter and learning the trade, he is also competing against the other nineteen for the one job that is waiting at the end of six-month internship—he is going to become a stockbroker.

Chris Gardner is a smart, witty, and determined man, and at the very end of the film he is chosen out of the twenty to become a broker at Dean Winter. After the film ends, we learn that he goes on to found his own brokerage firm and eventually sold a minority share in that company for a very large sum of money.

Happy ending. Well, if happy ending means I was glad the movie was over, then yes, The Pursuit of Happyness ended happily. But if this film, which was “inspired by a true story,” was meant to in turn inspire viewers to do whatever it takes (including putting your child through a virtual hell) to get a job that is going to put enough money in their pocket to give them financial security (and bolster their already significant ego at the same time), I am not sure if this is a message I would want to be giving.

I did not feel sorry for Chris Garner, nor did I cheer him on (except in the sense that I wanted him to achieve sufficient success—really quickly—to put me out of my misery). He is an egotistical, irresponsible jerk who cares only about himself. I could not help but feeling that his determination to keep his son when his wife was leaving him and his gritty resolve to succeed at Dean Winter were also manifestations of an ego out of control. I wonder what lessons the son took away from the experience his father put him through.

This is not a movie I would ever watch again, nor would I encourage a young person to buy into its message.

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