Movie Review – The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
by RISHI AGRAWAL
No matter what happens, things will turn out for the best in the end. This naïve viewpoint plagues a lot of Hollywood movies, and especially The Pursuit of Happyness. The film is pleasant enough, and it’s not boring, but it lacks any real depth or complexity.
Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a man who is trying his best to care for his wife Linda (Thandie Newton) and son (played by Smith’s real-life son Jaden) by selling bone density scanners, machines that produce images only slightly better than an X-ray machine at twice the cost. Needless to say, business isn’t going well. Early in the film, Gardner meets a man driving an expensive car. Gardner finds out that the man is a stockbroker, and, furthermore, that he doesn’t need a college degree to become a stockbroker. All Gardner needs to be “good with people” and “good with numbers.” Gardner then pursues his brand-new dream of becoming a stockbroker for Dean Witter.
Gardner basically cares about two things in the film: getting that job with Dean Witter and his son. All other issues are pushed aside. When, early in the film, Gardner’s wife leaves him, there is a brief moment of tension as Gardner fights to keep their son with him. Linda does not fight too hard, and there is no attempt at reconciliation. Thus, this plot point is packed away in a tidy little box and set aside for the viewer. At another point in the film, Gardner finds that someone has stolen one of his bone density scanners. Gardner cares about the scanners because they represent money to him, providing that he can sell them. Again, this does not really give a rise to conflict as, once the scanner is lost, Gardner makes some attempt to look for it, but soon gives up. The scanner soon returns to him (somewhat through coincidence) and again, we have another plot point easily resolved.
The movie constantly mimics this formula. Something good happens. Then something really bad happens. The bad thing becomes a problem for Gardner to solve. Gardner solves the problem. Then the cycle starts again. Once Gardner achieves his little victories, however, the issue never comes up again. Gardner’s struggles generally come in two varieties: his lack of money and his embarrassment over not having any money. Despite the fact that Gardner is competing for a high-end job, his ability to do the job is never an issue. And even though Gardner’s son is being put through a lot of stress for a young child, their relationship is not really strained, except for brief moments.
And this brings us to the fundamental problem with the film. In many beginning creative writing classes, we are taught the difference between story and plot. The classic example often used is “The king died. The queen died.” Now, this is simply a plot because it tells us what happened. However, we could instead say, “The king died. The queen died of grief.” Now, we have a story instead of a plot, because we have a sense of causation. We realize that one event has directly led to the next one. In The Pursuit of Happyness, we have the overall idea that Gardner wants a job with Dean Witter. But, beyond that, we have nothing but a series of anecdotes. One problem does not directly flow from another. We might have fond memories of particular moments, but the film, as a whole, falls apart.
Even though we don’t have much more than a fairly random assortment of scenes, they are strongly linked thematically and so we could be easily fooled that they are linked. And these tiny struggles that Gardner faces en route to his larger struggle are interesting to watch. Especially notable in the film is the easy rapport that Gardner has with his son, which seems so natural and fluid. Perhaps films should cast father-son pairs more often. Will Smith, as an actor, is adequate in this movie. Not Best Actor worthy, by any means, but adequate. In the end, all we are left with is a pleasant, entertaining movie. And there are plenty of those to go around.
2 1/2 stars