Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Pursuit of Happyness, The (2006)

Run, Will, run!

Gordon Gekko put it best when he said in Wall Street, "Greed is good". Sure, you might have hated him for being an arrogant corporate raider, but who else could serve as Adam Smith's invisible hand of the market? Who else to correct the market when it is inefficient, when companies are poorly managed, when resources are sucked into poorly performing industries? Even though Gekko was Oliver Stone's intended villain, it's clear that him, real life corporate raiders and other investment bankers are the real heroes of capitalism. We can even trace his benign influence to the economic rise of China, for Deng Xiaoping must have been thinking of Gordon Gekko when he made his pronouncement that "It is glorious to be rich!"

For much of what Joseph Stiglitz calls the Roaring Nineties, with the global economy on a seemingly unstoppable rise to prosperity, I was hoping that a director somewhere would make a spiritual sequel to the movie, at last restoring Gekko and his profession to the moral and ethical heights that they truly belong. It seems strange now that almost at the end of bull market, a positive movie about the making of a stock broker/investment banker would be made. But here it is anyway, arriving at an unexpected moment, this Will Smith movie. Of course, circumstances require the filmmakers to be more circumspect - open celebration of wealth, entrepreneurship, and pure market instinct/talent ("The Gekko factor") is on the way out, and hence the movie's title "The Pursuit of Happyness". It's a major example of political correctness, because instead of acknowledging that it's okay to be greedy or to want to be rich, people are so afraid of saying "greed", "wealth" that they insist they just want to enjoy the right to pursue happiness...

With the director succumbing from the word go to the PC leanings of our times, The Pursuit of Happyness can only be a rags to riches movie of an honest family man who makes it big due to hard work, a strong will and sheer perseverence, an honest man who, even when dealt with a less than amazing hand by fate, manages to climb out of poverty singlehandedly by nurturing his latent ingenuity and business instincts, proving his worth and meriting his future corporate position with his skills. Furthermore, such a story requires that the movie be much more about the rags part than the riches part, and that until the final moment, the hero will be constantly struggling against imminent failure and poverty. It's such a typical corporate Cinderella story that you wonder "where could we find people like this nowadays?" Thankfully, for scriptwriter Steven Conrad, such a successful person exists in Christopher Gardner, a founder of an investment company who used to go door to door selling expensive and bulky medical equipment to doctors who mostly didn't feel they need them, and The Pursuit of Happyness is a biographical rags to riches film about Gardner before he became successful.

And luckily for the audience, Will Smith is surprisingly credible as the sad sack persevering hero in what has to be his first dramatic feature film role. Where the script demands for subdued acting, Will Smith delivers it. Where the script demands for tears to be shed, speeches to be made in frustration because Gardner's son can't understand why they're suddenly living on the streets or camping out in the toilet of a train station, Will Smith delivers it with soul. The only thing you have to worry about is concerns the script itself, questions like: is the story far too bleak, like a the Passion of the Gardner? Does Gardner have to have so many bad things happen to him before he is allowed a small triumph at the end of the movie? Does he suffer ultimately because the script requires his suffering, and not because the story necessarily and naturally leads to that much suffering? Does being a self-made man/hero mean that Gardner must have no friends or allies in the movie? Is he alone, abandoned by wife and buddies because the script requires his solitude and self-made status, or because the story necessarily and naturally leads to him alone standing for himself?

On the whole, The Pursuit of Happyness achieves what it sets out to do, with a few minor distractor points or faults, such as the prerequisite 4 or 5 scenes where Will Smith is required to run screaming down the street chasing after an object or person, as though the producers couldn't decide if he's belieavable as a dramatic actor, or whether they should try to please audiences who remember him more as an action hero. For myself, it's entirely too bad that this movie does not rehabilitate Gordon Gekko - who would heartily eat Christpher Gardner alive for breakfast, with a smile - or serve as a spirited apologia for greed and the pursuit of money. At best, The Pursuit of Happyness could be mistaken for a movie extolling the self-made men of the investment banking industry - but such a story , with its hapless self-willed persevering hero, might be better served extolling the self-made men of the MLM industry, with almost no modifications required. And that would be a cardinal sin.

First published at incinemas on 1 March 2007

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