Film Review: The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith and ably supported by Jadie Smith & Thandie Newton is an average movie overall. The rest of this essay will briefly outline the areas where the movie fails and areas where it succeeds. In doing so, I hope to convince the reader of the veracity of the following thesis statement: The Pursuit of Happyness is an average commercial film that fails to live up to its initial promise as a result of redundant themes and a predictable plot that leaves the viewer lingering with the question “What’s new?”

The title of the movie promises a lot, but its content fails to match the hype. While the essence of the film can be summed up as “fighting through perennial adversity”, this expansive theme is portrayed in a predictable manner, leaving the viewer with a sense of ennui. While the usual adversity in run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare is an individual human being or a group, it is poverty and economic disparity prevalent in the most advanced nation in the world, the United States of America. In a clever use of wordplay and metaphor, the title ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ is taken from the famous words of Thomas Jefferson at the time of drafting the Constitution of the United States of America. The lead character played by Will Smith, suggests in an ironic tone, how the word ‘pursuit’ never transpires into ‘achievement’ of happiness. But, disappointingly, one piece of clever irony and historical reference does not make a good film.

The other obvious flaw in the movie is its ambivalence toward political assertion. For instance, its title is taken from the Constitution of the United States and the story is set during the Ronald Reagan Administration, hinting that the film is going to be a depiction of political realities of late twentieth century America. But this tear-jerking story of a single father’s ordeals to raise his son in the rampant poverty of the Reagan era, transpires to be an apolitical product when the dismal state of the economy and the neo-conservative policy making behind it is barely mentioned during the 90 minute narrative.

Further, the viewer gets the impression that the film is a blatant attempt at winning Will Smith his coveted dream of an Academy award. This becomes evident from the amount of screen time that Smith hogs, to go along with the contrived situations of financial crisis that the lead protagonist is expected to conquer. And not surprisingly, the projected hero does live up to his billing. But sadly, all this high-drama has an air of artificiality about it, which, at the end of the movie leaves the audience with a sense of bland nostalgia.

The other glaring failing of the film is its treatment of the issue of poverty from a woman’s perspective. Chris Gardner’s wife Linda has every right to demand financial support from her husband at least to the extent that they cover essential living costs. But she is made the only obvious villain in the story, for making a reasonable suggestion to her husband – that of swallowing his pride a little and seek a better job. By failing to mend his doomed marriage and enrolling himself in a traineeship program by adopting an all-or-nothing reeks of irresponsibility on part of Chris Gardner. That he made sincere efforts as a single parent to spend time with his son, will not qualify as a suitable substitute for the dysfunctional family environment he created for his son. After all, for someone who is hardly 4 or 5 years of age, he would need the love and caring of his mother than the occasional meeting-ups of his father. Are the film makers suggesting that financial riches can compensate for lack of motherly love and affection and a safe family environment?

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