Pursuing the American Dream
In "The Pursuit of Happyness" Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is a man down on his luck. He and his wife are barely making enough money to keep a roof over their son’s head. As a salesman, he made a faulty investment on a medical device which turned out to be too expensive for doctors to purchase. Unable to sell enough of them to produce a profit, his wife Linda (Thandie Newton) is relegated to working double shifts as a laundry woman in a local hotel. They are behind on their rent payments, parking tickets and daycare fees when Linda finally gives up and leaves Chris and their son Christopher (Smith’s real life son, Jaden) to fend for themselves. One day, Chris meets a broker who tells him that as long as he is good with numbers and people he has a shot at making it big. Clearly someone who is interested in get-rich-quick gigs, Chris puts all of his energy into pursuing this newest endeavor. He is accepted to a prestigious (unpaid) 20-person internship at a big brokerage firm and starts putting all of his efforts into being the one intern awarded a job at the end of his six-month program.
The title of the film refers to Thomas Jefferson’s words from the Declaration of Independence. The pursuit of happiness is an ideal intertwined with American values. As much as people insist that money does not buy happiness, this film would beg to differ. As Americans we are guaranteed life and liberty, but not happiness. We are guaranteed to pursue happiness, but a final result is not assured. Perhaps it is because happiness is subjective. Some would be happy with a roof over one’s head. However, Gardner needs much more. He lusts over Mercedes Benz’s, mansions and box seats at football stadiums. He will not be truly happy unless he can provide all of those amenities for his son. The spelling of the title is a bit of irony thrown in for good measure. The preschool which his son attends is in the heart of Chinatown, the teacher barely speaks English and the students watch television to pass the time. Outside, on the school’s front wall, the word "Happyness" is spray-painted. How can his son be expected to get a decent education if a simple word such as happiness can’t even be spelled correctly?
One of the biggest problems with this movie is how, whenever Gardner is at his lowest of lows, something comes along to give him some respite. A film professor once told me that just because something happened in real life, does not mean that it can translate onto film. That idea holds true with "The Pursuit of Happyness." Even though the movie starts out with the disclaimer that it is based on a true story, presumably most of the major turning points actually happened. However, it difficult to believe that he would twice be able to recover stolen scanners, or that just when he had 21 dollars in his bank account he was able to make a sale after 4 months of no progress. Those scenes made the story less believable rather than more impressive.
It is hard to deny that the story is pretty much one sided. Linda is a shrill woman consumed with fulfilling her own happiness, even if it means abandoning her son and husband when things did not work out to her exact expectations. The film, meant to highlight Gardner's life and relationship with his son, very deliberately makes the mother figure as mean and self-centered as possible. On the flip side, Will Smith gives one of the most powerful performances of his career as a father trying to provide enough love and enough sustenance for his son. In one of the most heart-wrenching scenes, Christopher asks his father if "mom left because of me." The scene takes place when the duo is at their lowest of lows, sleeping in a communal room at a church shelter with only one broken scanner left to sell, Chris assures his son that "mom left because of mom." In a scene such as this, the audience sits in the theater fully aware that they are being emotionally manipulated, but given the narrative it is what they want to see. Viewers want to know that Chris is the good guy who is going to save his son from tough times. Furthermore, with Linda being the antagonist it gives an outlet for their hardships; she can be the bad guy and become the one on which blame can be placed (even though she was the one pulling the double shifts while Chris was trying to sell a defective product).
Ultimately, the film holds true to the American dream. It states that if you work hard enough your dreams can come true. Nothing is left up to fate; it is all in your own hands to control your future. Gardner was a hard working, honest man who never compromised on his morals and therefore he got his dream. He put every bit of effort into excelling in his internship, studying until all hours of the night. At the same time he was devoted to his son and trying to keep him safe. The movie is also saying that was chosen to work at the firm because of his own behaviors, not because of any one else’s decisions. He took his life and liberty to pursue happiness and it paid off. This movie is a rah-rah American dream flick. It is overly sentimental and sappy, but that is how audiences like to see their American dream films. They don’t want the bad guy getting the prize or a good person not fulfilling his dreams. A movie such as these needs to be overly sentimental because that is the only way the audience will applaud along with Chris at the end.