There is no uglier trait in man than a streak of optimism, and magnified by the silver screen, it is even more difficult to endure, much like an evening with the elderly. I go to the movies for numerous reasons: to be entertained, to laugh, to learn, to experience events, people, and places unfamiliar — but at this stage in my life, I have never gone with the intent (or hope) of experiencing uplift. If I am told that life is sweet, or that dreams come true, or that playing by the rules pays off with untold riches, I am propelled into a sour mood that only the misery of reality can alleviate. Movies can and should offer mindless escape, but when they do, it must be with clear motives and pure hearts. This is dreck, you admit, but having expected no less, you can carry on with your day without having to square a single thing. But when one encounters something like The Pursuit of Happyness, a movie with a mission no more ambitious than the propagation of a colossal, irresponsible falsehood — that is, that a blissful dawn always follows the bitter darkness — a defensive, almost hostile posture must result. There it is in bold letters — “based on a true story” — the key word being “based”, which is always a clue that we’re about to witness a mere approximation of events rather than an eyewitness account. Things will be changed for dramatic effect, time will be compressed, and events will be pushed forward to tighten the script, but more than that, it means the film is so fantastical that no one would ever believe it without assurance. This is that type of experience.
And so we have Chris Gardner (Will Smith); by all appearances a saint among mere mortals, but only because he insists on never giving up. Perseverance, then, has always been the secular religion in this country, and the man who shows pluck, grit, and determination — the sort who shows up day after day to see if you’ve looked at his application — will always wear the hero’s crown, regardless of the means by which he eventually succeeds. For in our collective imagination we always do, and Chris is no exception to that perceived rule. It is spoiling no surprise to say that Mr. Gardner gets what he asks for, which in this case is the status of a millionaire. In every real sense, that’s the only way we measure achievement in this country, and to suggest that anyone truly admires integrity or “mere effort” is arguably as laughable as the idea that literally anyone can become like Chris. His story, after all, would ring hollow were it not for the Wall Street finale. If you doubt this, ask yourself if the film would have been made — or the book on which it is based ever written — had Gardner ended up in rehab, or been confined to a mental hospital, or sent his son back to live with his ex-wife. We need the well-paying job and status as business guru to validate the struggle. Working like a demon — long hours, little regard, forced time away from the family — doesn’t mean a thing to us unless there’s a golden parachute to glide us to our rest. If it were just the process, we’d have more stories about poverty and labor on the margins. Not here, though: we have to know that if we are to piss blood, we’d better have a hot tub at the end of the run.
Before that ascension into the clouds, however, we have a tale of one of cinema’s most unjustified heroes; a selfish, irresponsible lout who aspires to be our Horatio Alger, but is in fact closer to Narcissus. From the outset, he is the all-American asshole: his dreams at his price, and the rest be damned. Tolerable for a single man, perhaps, but inexcusable with a family in tow. Having already signed away his life savings buying an apartment full of bone density scanners (full of kisses and hugs we witness in flashback), Chris is now about to forego an income of any kind by taking on an unpaid, six month internship with Dean Witter. He questions the decision to take such a position for about three seconds, apparently unaware that by doing so, his wife Linda (Thandie Newton) — already pulling double shifts as a laundress — will now have to find a second job while he lives out an adolescent fantasy of being a stock broker. It’s infuriating, but we are meant to admire the man for believing in himself. The scanners have been a failure on all fronts, and though the wife is understandably upset as the bills pile up and the rent goes unpaid, Chris is genuinely shocked that he would ever be questioned. It’s not just a gamble, of course, it’s the sort of thing one never does when immediate concerns require more practical decisions. Until you’re on your feet and the landlord (and IRS) are off your back, perhaps you should take a job — any job — and only when you can breathe a bit easier do you take bold risks with the lives of your family. Not the stuff of high drama, but surely the mature — the manly — thing to do.
Fed up at last (what the hell took her this long?), Linda decides to end the marriage, taking a job in New York with her sister’s boyfriend’s restaurant. She’s right to get out, what with the pie-in-the-sky blowhard she’s forced to live with. It makes sense that he’s a salesman, as he’s genetically programmed to stay in your face until you cry uncle. That’s how he lived with Linda, and she just wanted to go one month without wondering when the electricity was going to be turned off. And yet, by the film’s standard, she’s the villain of the piece, despite being patient enough to stick around after he threw away a fortune on a device hospitals neither want nor need. Linda is so despicable, in fact, that she gives him the kid (Will Smith’s actual son, Jaden); apparently because it’s not enough that she contort her face into maximum cuntitude whenever he talks of yet another scheme. She must be a bad mother as well, which is another way of saying she preferred emasculating her man and pissing on his dreams to unwavering support. For better or worse, though such an agreement implies a “better” is at least approachable. And because Chris eventually makes millions, Linda becomes even more pathetic, as she failed to stick around for the fulfillment of her husband’s ambitions. Increasingly, perhaps always, women in the movies have been the source of masculine downfall, and this is but a stone’s throw from Lady Macbeth or the dames of film noir. In sum, pussy will always hold you back.
The path to success is a rough one, as it must be, for the American Dream doesn’t accept mere half-heartedness. Chris continues to peddle his wares during off hours, and spends the rest of his days breaking his ass for the mere possibility of a job. He’s the star of his class, of course, which was evident the moment he solved a Rubik’s Cube (the story begins in 1981) in a matter of minutes. In fact, it was this very display that got him the internship to begin with, as he pushed his way into a cab to convince his potential employer that he was better than all the rest, despite having no education or experience after high school. So are we to believe that a powerful member of a multi-billion dollar company takes a chance on a man because he’s able to master a national fad? This is a true story, is it not? And then Chris shows up at his interview covered in paint and dressed in an undershirt. But because he makes a joke about his attire that has the row of rich white males laughing like hyenas, he’s given the position as if it always belonged to him. Why was he so disheveled, you ask? While painting his apartment — a task he agreed to because his landlord was owed three months’ rent — the cops showed up and arrested him for a slew of unpaid parking tickets. Taken to the police station, he is forced to write a check for the tickets, but cannot be released until the next morning, after the check clears. He’s scheduled to leave at 9 AM, while his Dean Witter interview is at 10 AM, so he has no time to clean up or get changed. No matter; corporate America always opens its doors to black men looking like they’ve just returned from the city dump. Happens all the time, they say.
So Chris pushes on, building himself up at the brokerage house, while continuing to meet with doctors about his machine. Another comment on that infernal device: is it realistic to expect that it is constantly being stolen (by white hippies, conveniently), and that despite San Francisco’s immensity, he is still able to locate the thieves and retrieve it in one piece (except for the one time, of course, when he gets it back from the schizophrenic who thinks it’s a time machine)? It’s rough, but manageable; that is, until the nasty, mean-spirited IRS steps in and steals $600 from his bank account for back taxes owed. “That’s MY money,” he screams, echoing Republicans everywhere, who have yet to submit their plan for covering a nation’s bills. So of course, the big bad government is the force that sends him spiraling down to unforeseen depths of desperation and hunger. Chris and his son sleep in a train station bathroom (a key scene where Smith cries and secures an Oscar nomination), assorted homeless shelters, and an occasional hotel room when Chris sells a machine or two. Throughout, Chris is, technically speaking, a homeless man, though every effort is made to distinguish him from “the others”. Chris is, after all, intelligent and hard-working, unlike all the other bums and layabouts who deserve to freeze and die. And yet, Chris’ plight becomes an unlikely universal, as he symbolizes what anyone — even the hopeless — can do if they just pound the pavement and believe in themselves. We cheer him on because he loves his boy and isn’t a raving loon, yet we marvel at how far such a sad case can rise in this, the greatest country on God’s green earth.
Once Chris becomes immersed in his internship (and carefully constructs his life so that he’s able to pick up his son from the one daycare that doesn’t ask to be paid, make the bus, and be in line at the shelter), it is expected that we have forgotten about the selfish act of vanity that put the pair in this predicament, but at that point, we know he’ll pull through. And hell, being homeless isn’t that rough, as he’s never really threatened and always seems to have a full stomach. It’s San Francisco, where even the transients live the high life! Chris is still able to have a clean suit — ironed and pressed — and apparently, always smells like roses. He loses his shoe after being hit by a car, but co-workers just laugh and he’s back again with a new pair before you know it. Chris is so wonderful, in fact, that even as he skips out on paying cab fare (leading to an extended chase right out of Run Lola Run), he screams an apology for a full block. Still, he does get upset on occasion and pushes people out of bus lines, so maybe he’s less than noble after all. But look how he plays games with his child, even amidst the horror of the streets! All is forgiven, and if only the homeless were like Will Smith, we might not be so unforgiving and annoyed whenever they asked for change. What if the drooling, toothless maniac screaming verses from the New Testament is also a diamond in the rough? And if you hand the drug addicted, mentally ill vet an application and he reacts with red-faced effrontery, do not be shocked, even if you expected a man twenty years removed from the workforce and lacking an address, phone number, and means of transportation to grab his bootstraps and do it like old Chris.