There’s a really weird part in this week’s nominee for the Hunt for the Worst Movie of All Time, The Pursuit of Happyness. Will Smith’s character, Chris Gardner, is a single father now, after his wife left him, doing his best to raise his son while pursuing an ambitious and unlikely career change. His son asks if they can go play basketball, so they go to a scenic rooftop basketball court that overlooks the city of San Francisco. Incidentally, despite being entirely broke and practically homeless, Will Smith and his son (both fictional and real, because Chris Gardner’s son is played by Will Smith’s son) have an entire scenic rooftop basketball court to themselves? (I’m not saying that I fully understand the class distinctions of scenic rooftop basketball courts overlooking the entire city of San Francisco, or that this is unrealistic, it just seems like maybe there’d be at least a couple more people up there trying to play basketball on a weekend?) But anyway: Jaden Smith is talking about how much he likes playing basketball and how one day he’s going to be a basketball star, to which Will Smith replies “well, I was never very good at basketball, so you’ll probably not be very good at basketball either. You might be a little bit better than average at basketball, but you should probably stop playing basketball because of how bad you’re almost certainly going to be at it.” This makes Jaden Smith sad. You know, because of how IT’S AN INCREDIBLY TERRIBLE AND ENTIRELY UNNECESSARY THING TO SAY TO A CHILD WHO SIMPLY EXPRESSED HIS LOVE OF A GAME YOU WERE IN THE MIDST OF PLAYING TOGETHER. After a moment of reflection and realization, Will Smith looks very meaningful and kind of tearfully at his son, and he tells him never to let anyone tell him what he can and can’t do, not even his father. Sure. I guess. Except that there’s a really big difference between letting someone tell you what you can or can’t do, and having your father just be really straight-forward in an intensely aggressive way about the harsh realities of life. But the real problem with this scene is just that it doesn’t make any sense. He could have given his son that valuable life lesson without awkwardly setting it up through clunky dialogue. No one would have had a problem with a scene where Jaden said he wanted to play basketball and Will Smith said “OK, follow your dreams. You are my son and I support you, and as it happens, I, too am trying to follow my dreams, so I know how hard that can be and how important it is to feel that your loved ones are on your side.” Slow clap, I’m sure. Instead, the entire thing was framed in heavy-handed, unrealistic bullshit to bloody you upside the head with a point that’s not even that original or particularly useful as a human being trying to make sense of the world we live in (it may or may not be worth noting that Chris Gardner’s son is not a professional basketball player).
And that is why that scene is a perfect example of what is wrong with this movie. For more examples, follow the jump.
The Pursuit of Happyness is based on the true life story of Chris Gardner, who had a pretty rough time of it in the early 1980s but eventually went on to start his own stock brokerage firm and become a millionaire. Fair enough. As the movie opens, Chris is selling bone density scanners, but it’s not going very well. Then one day, he sees a really shitty looking asshole driving a really fancy car, and he decides he wants to be a shitty asshole, so he applies for a competitive internship program at a stock broker place. At first everyone is like, haha, no way, but then he solves a Rubik’s Cube in a taxi? So now he is in the internship program. But now his life leaves him. And now he is evicted from his apartment. And now he can’t even afford the motel he is staying in, so he and his son sleep in a subway bathroom. Admittedly, it really does not look like a particularly fun time. Meanwhile, in addition to working very hard at the competitive stock broker internship (which is unpaid, and from the pool of 20 only one candidate is selected for an actual job), Chris continues trying to sell bone density scanners, which he keeps having to steal back from hippies and homeless people (LONG STORY) and also sleeping in a homeless shelter. But all along the way, he keeps working just as hard as he can, and believing that he can achieve something important and provide a good life for his son. Unfortunately, in the movie’s climactic scene, Chris is denied the stock broker job, and he ends up homeless and alone (because his son dies of embarrassment). JUST KIDDING! He gets the job! Congratulations, Chris!
I will just say this right here: it’s fine. The movie’s fine. The story is fine. The acting is a little MUCH but ultimately is fine. Even Jaden Smith: fine. It’s far from the Worst Movie of All Time (although it definitely has a lot of the defining characteristics that make it a perfect nominee, including Serious Subject, Poverty, and American Dreams.) But that’s not to say that it is particularly good, or without some very serious problems.
Let’s start with the day that Chris Gardner first seems that shithead in his shitmobile:
Uh….WE ALL KNOW WHAT FUCKING STOCK BROKERS ARE? Like, it’s fine for this guy to be walking down the street and decide that he’s fed up with a life of poverty (although, the system is pretty carefully designed and has been reinforced institutionally over hundreds of years and across the globe to ensure that it doesn’t really matter whether he is fed up or not) but can we not pretend like these mysterious “Stock Brokers” are a group of notoriously happy people? They’re fucking assholes! EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM, FOR SURE, WITHOUT EXCEPTION! Honestly, though, Stock Brokers throw themselves through windows. And they’re pretty widely known to sacrifice any semblance of a personal/family life in their insatiable pursuit of money. So enough with the “happiness” thing. If you want the car, go get the car, but leave contentment out of it.
Which naturally brings us to the fallacy of the whole American Dream thing in the first place. For as much as this film tries to take a “serious” look at the hardships of poverty and the sacrifices less fortunate people must make in their attempts to become millionaires or even just to not have to sleep in a subway station bathroom anymore, the whole thing is a fucking lie. Regardless of what happened to Chris Gardner, the larger truth of wealth, poverty, and economic disparity in this country (and do not even let’s get started on the World At Large, in which millions of people are starving to death and have no access to drinking water, much less medical treatment or education) is that it’s nearly impossible to move between economic classes, and that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t try and that we shouldn’t applaud them when they succeed, but it’s not like people are poor just because they don’t run as much as Chris Gardner was always running.
About that: they seriously should have called this movie The Pursuit of Joggyness. You know, because of all the jogging. Each of these images is for a separate scene in the movie:
(It’s also weird when Chris Gardner is running to ditch a cab ride that he can’t afford, as if the cab driver doesn’t have his own problems, or when Gardner is chasing after an unmedicated homeless man trying to get back the bone density scanner that could be the difference between providing food and a roof over his son’s head, and jaunty caper music plays in the background? Cool capers! Terrifying poverty makes for the jauntiest chases!)
The movie also does one of my least favorite things, which is to establish a character’s intelligence through the use of a fucking prop. Chris Gardner, for example, is a math genius. We know this because he can solve a Rubik’s Cube puzzle. SUUUUURE.
Whatever. At least he wasn’t writing out math equation’s on his son’s face with a grease pencil. But it’s still pretty lazy. (Especially because the first time he encounters one is at his apartment, because his wife, who works in a SWEAT SHOP, got one as a random gift from a co-worker? No she didn’t. Nope. She did not get the “Must Have” novelty toy of the decade from someone else at the sweat shop for no reason.) Of course, even if this was normal and realistic and true, which it’s not, then it actually complicates things further in terms of the takeaway of Chris Gardner’s “inspirational” story. Because what it now says is that in order to make your dreams come true, you need to secretly be a math genius who just happens to share a cab with the gatekeeper to his dreams at the height of a new toy’s craze and that gatekeeper needs to have an infant’s sense of wonder to the point where he will definitely try and help you out with your dreams because of how impressed he is with your ability to solve puzzles made for children. WE’RE GOING TO NEED SOME BIGGER BOOTSTRAPS!
Of course, if you really want to make some money in this world, what you should do is cast your own child in your multi-million dollar Hollywood movie at scale and keep that shit in the family. Dreams really do come true!
Ultimately, The Pursuit of Happyness is pretty standard and forgettable Hollywood melodrama. It’s not even that deeply offensive and misguided and distracting from the genuine problems of poverty in America if you don’t think about it at all. Which you shouldn’t. It’s a waste of time. You should be out in those streets, HUSTLING!