I once bought this film from Videorama on Alberta in Portland, Oregon. They would put movies on sale for 5 bucks once the demand had died down, and I picked up a number of titles that way. I never got around to watching it before I sold everything I ownded and moved to Sweden. So it wasn’t until today I actually saw it.
There are two reasons I never watched it. The first is that I generally shy away from serious films. I’m not proud of that fact. I like to think of myself as an intellectual, but when it comes down to picking something to watch I’m more likely to go with Hot Fuzz than Hotel Rwanda. I figure the serious films will always be there later; right now I want to laugh or get swept up in fantasy. Turns out that I miss a lot of great movies this way. So I got lucky today.
The other reason I didn’t watch the film before now is that on one level I expected it to be cheesy. Where the rest of the world sees The Will Smith, I still see the Fresh Prince. I can’t help it. And when the star of Men in Black does a serious picture, I don’t expect the demands of the role to be in his ken. Now, however, I’m entering a new phase of Will Smith bias. For someone who is used to being presented as larger than life one second, a smart ass the next, he had me totally convinced.
If you haven’t seen it, The Pursuit of Happyness is a somewhat true rags-to-riches story of Christopher Gardner, a gifted and successful American man who happens to be black. The first act shows the collapse of Gardner’s assumed marriage, his struggle with a difficult sales job, and the birth of a stubborn drive to be wealthy. The story is most compelling in that as Gardner progressively loses everything he owns, including a roof, he is also raising his five year old son. Somehow he manages to maintain his dignity, along with his determination to become a stock broker with no college education, no partner, and no home.
Though director Gabriele Muccino downplays race as a theme in the film, it is implied. During his internship with Dean Witter, Gardner is regularly sent on insulting office-boy errands by the instructor. Not only do his duties as a father limit the hours he can spend at the office in competition with the other interns, but now he has this to deal with. Muccino shows his opinion that being black in America can be an unfair disadvantage, but this obstacle is no less surmountable than any other roadblock to success. Gardner deals with racism as he does everything else. You see him weighing his options, making a decision, and doing whatever he has to do in order to move forward. That means playing the game, and if the boss tells you to get coffee, you get it well. If that means you’ll have less time to call prospective clients, then you better make your calls count for more than anyone elses.
The story follows the classical romantic model. It is David and Goliath. It is the Greek hero fending off hordes of Achaeans. It is Robin Hood. It is the Crusades. Who doesn’t love a good underestimated hero? Early in the film Gardner solves a Rubik’s Cube to the astonishment of the man who will eventually offer him the internship. It’s an accidental audition and one of the more pleasant moves of the dour opening act. Rubik’s game is our modern day version of slinging a rock between the eyes of a giant. We’re all technically capable of it, but only a few can inspire us with their ability to actually pull it off.
If anything, such stories should put us off. They are, in a way, telling us exactly how ordinary we all are. A character such as Gardner’s does not seem ordinary through the eyes of the camera. He is always on top of his game, but the cruel world endlessly piles it on. We know that by comparison we are completely outclassed. But we can’t help to be inspired, as we have since Homer. In the dark of the theater we are closest to our ancestors at the side of the fire. We can almost believe in our own capacity to be as great as the children of the Gods.