The Pursuit of Happyness by Gabriele Muccino
The Pursuit of Happyness is a film recently released in the UK, starring Will Smith, and based on the true story of a working-class black man who aspires to be a stock-broker.
The film has received considerable critical claim, and seems to be quite popular with audiences - as reflected in a 7.6 score on the Internet Movie Database.
I found the film to be quite engaging, and overall I enjoyed it - though I've also got some very major points of irritation with it. To me, it was like a tasty and well-made cake, with a couple of cockroaches hidden in there that rather spoilt my meal.
I think it was very strong in portraying the need for people to use initiative and determination if they want to improve their lives. Will Smith takes on the frenetic, physically vibrant character brilliantly, and the moment when he looks down at his son and says: "Don't ever let anybody tell you you can't do something" is about the most convinced I have ever been by this philosophy. I also liked the way the film showed the sharp divide between rich and poor in American cities. One of my clearest memories of visiting San Francisco (where the film it set) a few years ago is the number of semi-starved people there were sleeping on the streets, while others in suits were clearly making millions. The racial divide between rich and poor was also pretty clear in the film - though I found it curious that this divide was an unspoken visual theme, and never articulated by the characters.
My first point of irritation came fairly early on, when the economically struggling protagonist sees a swarm of stock-brokers walking out of their offices. The scene shows them all smiling broadly, and the protagonist has a sort of revelation, as he believes that in this moment he witnesses happiness. Now I claim to have a small scrap of authority here, because I work around the financial district of London, where many very high-level stock-brokers and hedge-fund managers can be seen bustling around. They do *not* walk around beaming with happiness - they usually looked stressed, busy, and preoccupied.
In broad terms, this film will show you a man doing a lot of running around in a suit, barely finding time to sleep, compromising the lives of those who are close to him, and striving always for economic success. The surface-level story is in fact told very well - but I couldn't escape the feeling that the film-makers were trying to tell us something else here.
In the final scenes (stop reading here if you want any kind of suspense), we see the protagonist finally gain a job as a stock-broker. The happy ending falls into place, and "20 years later" text comes up to tell us how many millions of dollars he later made through his own stock-broking company. With the film's constant references to "happiness", and the "pursuit of happiness" as layed out in the American Bill of Rights, it does seem as if we are getting something of an equation here between being happy and having truck-loads of money. Which equation, once again, I just don't buy. The richest people I have known in my life have tended to be rather unhappy; and they seem to have a lot more family problems, often associated either with fights over money, or the failure to care for each other because they're too busy working.
True, the protagonist is working like such a maniac because he is focused on being able to care for his son. But the son has to pay a significant price for this, being dragged around by his hyperactive Dad, having to help him sell medical equipment... I am not sure if what we witness here is a fabulously caring, devoted father, or a totally overbearing father who can't see past his own demons and obsessions, and would eventually drive anybody crazy. Maybe he's both - which to me is more tragic than inspiring.
The Pursuit of Happyness has some great qualities, but I would probably rather have watched an equally good film about a man who finally achieves his goal of becoming a mechanic, or a teacher, or a doctor. I kept expecting that as the film came to its resolution, it would move on from the happiness=money theme to show some deeper level of human need and achievement. So I was a bit disappointed when this never came.