It may please you to know that the new Will Smith vehicle Pursuit of Happyness is mostly free of the overt sentimentality promised in its trailer. Even the offputting spelling error in the title didn’t grate in context. Smith’s own star turn is also well played, a huge relief since one imagines it’s the movie’s principal reason for being. Smith plays Chris Gardner who rises from single homeless dad to successful stockbroker in this tale both simple and simply told.
Given today’s movie trending towards overplotting, simplicity can often be a sweet salve. But a little of it goes a long way: Pursuit overstays its welcome with a repetitive structure and such an intense focus on the movie star at its core that it barely notices any other character, all of them existing only to provide obstacles or helping hands (usually obstacles). Like many triumph of the human spirit stories it also suffers from complete obviousness. The final emotional payoff is never in doubt –not that that would be a problem if the movie didn’t take an awful long time to get there. There’s even a lessons learned voiceover by Smith which makes the movie, for all its attempts at adult honesty regarding poverty and ruined marriages, feel like a children’s film. We’re even given cute chapter titles like “running” for sections of the movie in which, yes, Chris Gardner runs a lot.
It’s easy to follow and easy to root for the movie star but Pursuit of Happyness’s inspirational message didn’t engage my mind enough to distract me from what it leaves unsaid. Take Pursuit’s central plot point: Chris Gardner changes his life by accepting an unpaid internship with Dean Witter. At the end of this grueling internship the company chooses one of its twenty unpaid interns to hire. (You only get one guess as to who is chosen.) This information is presented as a daunting but golden opportunity : a chance for an ‘up by your bootstraps’ tale of triumphant life change. But all I could think of while listening to the conditions of the game was “what a racket.” This is an underdog story but it completely glosses over a cynical and genius move on the part of big business. They feed off of working stiffs without having to reimburse them, and Hollywood is there with an “amen”.
Chris Gardner works his way out of homeless shelter but what of the other interns? If we’re to follow the film’s logic they each have done the same thing as Chris Gardner. They’ve all taken on gigantic workloads, earning large revenues for a huge corporation and all but one of them receives nothing in return. It’s a sweet deal for big business but this happy ending is only for one man. The other unlucky souls, the ones filling the backgrounds of the frame with nary a handful of lines among them to give them movie life, Pursuit has no use for them. They’re but grist for the storytelling and corporate mill. It’s a triumphant tale alright. But guess who wins? C