December, 2006, Drama

Directed by:Gabriele Muccino

Starring:Will Smith</br>Jaden Smith</br>Thandie Newton and Brian Howe</br>Dan Castellaneta

The Pursuit of Happyness

The American Dream receives a distinctly Milton Friedman-esque gloss in this examination of Chris Gardner, whose real-life stockbroker success story forms the basis of Steve Conrad’s screenplay. As appealingly portrayed by Will Smith, (Hitch, Men In Black, Bad Boys) Gardner becomes a poster child for the kind of no-nonsense, capitalistic approach espoused by the fiscally conservative wing of the Republican Party who will see him as the perfect example of their ideology; reduce government spending on social programs, reward personal initiative by lowering the tax rates on those who produce wealth and above all, let the markets work their magic. Whether director Gabriele Muccino, (an Italian director making his Hollywood debut here) actually intends Happyness to be so throughly supportive of the socio-political implications of free market capitalism is hard to discern, but you can’t come away from seeing this movie without feeling that Newt Gingrich will glom onto it in support of his 2008 presidential bid. 

Happyness traces Gardner’s career path, which the film picks up in 1981 as it records his failing efforts to sell diagnostic imaging equipment to the hospitals and physicians of San Francisco. His wife Linda, (a shrewish Thandie Newton) mocks both his efforts and boundless optimism, while their 5 year old son Christopher, (played by Smith’s own son Jaden) warily observes the constant tension between his parents. In an effort to reverse his fortunes, Gardner wins acceptance into a six month intern program in the Dean Witter brokerage firm; but since the position comes with no salary, the family’s already precarious circumstances are further imperiled. Linda can’t stand the strain of living on the edge of bankruptcy and decamps to New York, where her sister’s boyfriend has promised work; determined to succeed, Chris accepts his appointment in the program while also retaining custody of their son.

Despite Gardner’s grinding workload and initial success, life on the economic margin takes its toll; a repossessed car, eviction from two apartments, evenings spent in homeless shelters or subway restrooms and an I.R.S. seizure of his meager resources for payment of back taxes. Through it all, Gardner must morph each morning into a professionally dressed member of the upwardly mobile middle class in order to meet the firm’s expectations about how its representatives should look and behave. 

Inevitably, this stress takes its toll.  Sharp exchanges with both clients and staff members at the non-profit charities and government agencies that help supply his needs, occasional insensitivity to his young son’s demands and the repeated stiffing of creditors…yet through it all, Gardner’s priorities remain unshaken; a commitment to career success and the needs of his son. At the end of the half-year gauntlet, Gardner’s selected by Dean Witter from among his fellow trainees and given a position in the firm, providing the opportunity to pursue the happiness which had so consistently eluded him.

Smith’s an inherently engaging personality and his portrayal of a constantly upbeat, hard working single parent generates all the sympathy and admiration for Gardner’s struggles that one might expect. More importantly, the script and Smith’s not inconsiderable acting skills don’t shirk the task of forcefully conveying poverty’s personal costs, when the smallest problem can quickly blossom into disaster. Failure to pay a bill or time or incurring an unexpected illness don’t just represent irritating annoyances; they constitute potentially life-shattering challenges capable of robbing even the hardiest soul of the dignity and hope needed to simply get through life. Happyness doesn’t sanitize the constant pressure and frequent mean spiritedness which poverty produces, nor does it fail to examine the blithe manner of Gardner’s colleagues and clients at Dean Witter, whose prosperous lives ebb and flow around his own in well-heeled oblivion as to his desperate circumstances. When the film’s final tag lines note that Gardner prospered in his new career, (eventually founding his own firm and selling a portion of it at great profit early in 2006) the reaction is one of exhausted relief rather than exhilaration.

How should one react to Happyness? As a technically well-crafted story, delivered via uniformly credible performances from its remarkably well-cast actors or as a parable about the absolute importance of personal character, hard work and commitment to parental responsibilities? It’s simply impossible not to like Will Smith’s Gardner, but the film’s message suggests that if you’re possessed of  well-above average intelligence and pursue your goals with near-obsessive doggedness, you’ll  succeed in attaining them - - hardly a conclusion that’s especially informative or uplifting. What of those who lack Gardner’s inherent mental ability and remarkable tenacity, not to mention his own upbringing, which helped him develop solid work habits and marketable skills? In passing, The Pursuit of Happyness shows many less fortunate members of our society without examining them or commenting on what claim, if any, they have on the rest of us. In the end, that makes Gardner’s admittedly impressive story just another example of Darwinian survival of the fittest.

The verdict? A well-told tale of personal success whose happy ending masks many of the social ills it so pointedly examines. 

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