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The Pursuit of Happyness – good stuff, but why the ‘y’?

where there's a Will there's a way

where there's a Will there's a way

The Pursuit of Happyness – Gabriele Muccino

An old saying demolished. The traditional advice to actors – ‘never act with animals or children’ is comprehensively contradicted in this touching film by the real life father and son Will and Jaden Smith (8). Here mutually dependent and totally supportive performances create the moving central relationship that lies, literally, at the heart of this film. But even with the advantage of a real off-screen relationship, these two actors still create credible characters in Chris Gardner and son Christopher with a warmth that makes you care about them and how their story unfolds.

Such performances don’t just happen. With Will Smith Producing as well, Director Muccino is to be congratulated for drawing out of these two an underplayed authenticity that at last gives Smith a challenge he can get his teeth into and demands that he turn his undoubtedly powerful screen presence into some real acting. And he delivers superbly. Better than any of us might have hoped or even expected. No doubt with Muccino’s disciplined help, Smith is almost unrecognisable. He has shed all his usual cocky physical and verbal trademarks and plays with that assured ‘stillness’ on camera that is the mark of real screen acting talent and insight. And this with nothing more to ‘disguise’ the Bel Air rapper from us than a simple moustache. Beside Smith’s commanding assurance on screen Thandie Newton looks twitchy and histrionic. As Gardner’s wife Linda and Christopher’s mom, ground down by their parlous, working class way of life, Newton looks a bit lost.

How you feel about the story, ‘inspired’ as the credits tell us by a real life, will depend on which level you want to take it. On a personal level it is moving and genuinely affecting – the story of a growing and deepening relationship between father and son when both are struggling to overcome hardship and poverty. But on a social or political level this is the quintessential American dream: everyone can succeed and achieve riches. They just have to have enough willpower and courage.

Smith’s Chris Gardner is a high school under-achiever with a talent for maths unused in his shaky employment as a wholly commission based salesman for portable medical equipment. At about $250 a hit these bone-scanners are useful but only marginally so in hospitals. Offering only a slightly better image than x-rays they are a hard sell to doctors from whom they are a luxury rather than a clinical necessity. This erratic income combined with Linda’s hard physical shift work gives them no financial stability or hope for the future. Linda cuts out from this depressing way of family life created by an unwanted pregnancy.

Chris learns of a 6 months open competitive stockbroker course and blags his way on to it courtesy of his aggressive sales skills and solving a newly invented (1980’s) rubik’s cube in 20 minutes in the back of corporate executive Jay Twistle’s car. With Linda gone and few scanners left to sell, the heart of the movie has Chris struggling his way through the unpaid stockbroker’s course. With his son in tow, Chris moves down the property ladder from family flat, to cheap motel room, to a Salvation Army-type hostel which offers beds on a first come first served basis. Arriving late one night, Chris and Christopher even have to bed down in a toilet on the subway.

Not only unpaid but with only 1 job offered for 20 on the course, we live the tension of Chris’s struggle to become the one. The winner of course, in true American style is he who make the most and the best telephone cold calls and puts on most new business in the 6 months of the course. This is not the film to examine the soul-destroying nature of this kind of work, still less the dubious moral values of the culture that sustains it. For that check out David Mamet’s superb but deeply disturbing Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Here they are a given.

Through a mixture of luck and persistence a potentially valuable client invites Chris and Christopher to a football game. At the game Chris makes further valuable contacts which he later exploits in his efforts to win the competition. The outcome requires little prescience to guess.

On a personal level this is a heart-warming story of two likeable, one even loveable, characters struggling against the harsh realities of the need to earn a living in a winner takes all culture. The inexorable logic of 1 winner in 20 gets rich is that 19 are losers and get squat. The power of the myth of the American Dream is demonstrated by the conviction of the ‘losers’, that with more aggression, more determination, they’ll win next time. So they support the system that offers excessive wealth to a few and hardly basic subsistence to the rest. This immensely effective free market system has generated the richest, most economically powerful nation on earth. Together with endemic levels of poverty in cities across the US that would shame many Third World countries.

The inescapable, obscene logic of the winner takes all culture and the underlying but hidden, message of this movie, is that the poor are in the end responsible for their own poverty. We are told therefore as the credits roll that the real Chris Gardner set up his own brokerage firm which he eventually sold for a multi-million dollar sum. I guess that’s what this culture calls a ‘happy ending’.

I don’t want to overburden a beautifully observed, superbly acted, very personal film, with political doubts. But it is those people Gardner leaves behind, the majority, that linger troublingly in the mind. Still, pretty much a must see. From a rigorously blinkered view, almost inspirational. Smith looks a sure Oscar nominee though that mad circus will rub salt into the social wounds above.

One last, immensely impressive thing about this movie. The first time I can remember seeing it in a Hollywood film. And I hope not the last. There is not a single signal, gesture, word, situation in the whole movie that even references, let alone uses, the fact that the main characters are black. This is just a guy, a father and his son, struggling to survive among other guys and families trying to do the same. They just happen to be black. There is no racial subtext or agenda here. These are strong, likeable human beings. Their colour is irrelevant and goes literally unnoticed and unremarked. And given the film’s social context, Muccino is again to be congratulated for rigorously avoiding the clichéd racial options that must have been so tempting. Denzel and Co please note.

(January 2007)

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