Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Pursuit of Happyness: A Review

The best way to watch The Pursuit of Happyness is to unplug the cable connecting your head and heart, or shift to heart only mode and sit back. You’ll soar. So much love. So much appeal to your best instincts to care for the little guy.

There’s so much to groove on. (Sorry if groove dates me; I can’t find a better word.) There’s Will Smith’s face. There’s the man’s affection for his son. The son’s voice when he says, “You’re a good papa.” The fact that the son is played by Smith’s own son and gives you reason to think there might be a gene for good acting. There’s the Italian director, Gabriele Muccino (don’t miss the extra features when you rent the DVD), and the obvious affection between him and Will Smith. There’s the scene with the Glide Memorial Choir and there’s Cecil Williams, played by Cecil Williams. And there’s Will’s face when he gets the news he is unemployed no more.

I assume you know the plot line. The script is based on the book by Chris Gardner who, if his tale is true, busted his ass to get a job with Dean Witter against what seem like impossible odds, including a stint as a homeless man sleeping in the toilet of a BART Station with his son.

Muccino barely knew English when he started filming, but he knew what he wanted to make the story about. You have to be an outsider to understand the American dream, he said. Don’t know about that, but he got it right.

And that brings us to what happens if you plug your head back in at some point. If you do, you begin to understand why rottentomatoes.com gave the film only a 2/3 positive rating. One man’s tale of courage, will power and determination is another man’s tale of everything that’s wrong with the American dream.

In pragmatic America, where philosophy is for sissies, individual effort is often taken for the sole governing factor in success, and not merely a contributing factor. It’s all about being a winner, not a loser, not about making the world a better place to live in. It’s about individual heroes, not groups or institutions. We’ve got John Wayne and Superman and now we’ve got Chris Gardner. One person can make a difference. Michael Jackson builds a fantasy land because he just wants to “help the children” and flies in a dying kid here and there and treats him like a prince. Oprah gives away cars and builds schools in South Africa and tells about it to millions of teary-eyed fans. We see her enabling a whole generation of new Nelson Mandelas. We don’t see the kids who miss out on her generosity.

Charity, the chief virtue of the great religions, goes hand in hand with an acceptance of the status quo. God must love poor people; he made so many of them, the saying goes. And thank God he provided us with so much opportunity to display our generous hearts.

Occasionally Americans pull off things like Social Security and Medicare. We also generate a critical mass of folk who try to tear those institutions down. We’re not much on universal health insurance but as our leaders Tom Delay and Bill Frist reminded us, we have developed the technology to support our life-at-all-costs values. Remember the efforts to keep Terry Schiavo alive?

The communists failed, any Republican can tell you, because they removed incentive. We, on the other hand, know America is Number One because we don’t make that mistake.

But talk about things like this has no place in a rags-to-riches American moral tale. It gets in the way of the tears and the inspiration and the pride. Worst of all, it’s boring.

In Pursuit of Happyness the wealthy are kind and generous and supportive. The poor are thieves. In one telling scene the Gardner character takes a basketball away from his son. Good, you think. A black American father who is reminding his kid not to fall in the trap so many ghetto kids fall into thinking sports will save your ass. Another winners and losers way out for the few with failure for the many. (For the many, there’s the military, of course, which is fine except when the military does what it’s meant to do.) But then he changes his mind and the message becomes, “Don’t listen to anybody. Not even me.” Don’t let anything get between you and your dream.

Really? Not anything? Not a wife and kids? Not a community? Not the pursuit of truth and the maintenance of a pure soul? Not a serious talk with yourself about who you might have to step on to get to the top? What happens to those of us who can’t make it to the top? Where do we sleep?

The models for Chris Gardner are the men with the Jaguars and ringside seats at sports events. The dream home is not a little home with a picket fence but a pretentious as hell mansion – goals he ultimately achieves, by the way.

Then there’s the fact that Gardner wows ‘em with his brilliance in solving the Rubic cube in a short cab ride from downtown San Francisco to Noe Valley. He’s always been a whiz kid. He’s got the stuff, in other words, to make it, given the opportunity. Ah, yes. Star material.

But what have we got with all this Marxist trashing of the American dream and raining on a winner’s parade? It’s a good way to ruin a good cry.

Watch those eyes of Will Smith tear up when the dream comes true. It will restore your faith in mankind.

The winner class, at any rate.

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