Friday, 25 January 2008

DVD: The Pursuit of Happyness

Lowdown: The movie version of The Secret.
Will Smith is back in The Pursuit of Happyness as a different kind of an action hero than we’re used to. This time he’s a family man thrown into a capitalist world.
Set in San Francisco during the early eighties, Smith is a father trying to make a living out of selling medical equipment no one really wants which he put his life savings into acquiring. The result is that his family, comprised of a wife that has to work double shifts and a small child who is in a miserable day-care where they watch TV all day and where they spell things like “Happyness”, is in severe financial stress. As the film progresses, things grow worse and worse for Smith, whose entire earthly possessions come down to less than $15 at one point.
However, Smith has a secret weapon up his sleeve. He sees all the happy people who have “proper” jobs and he wants to be like them. Through his will power he manages to secure an internship at a financial management company, which pits him in a position where he has to compete with twenty other aspirants in order to secure what he considers to be a proper job. Will he be able to make it into proper happiness, or will the financial and social chaos he is simultaneously going through break him down? Watch the film and learn what has happened in this story that is said to be “inspired by true events”.
Generally speaking, watching the Pursuit is one of those experiences that leaves you feeling good. We have ourselves a hero character whose situation only deteriorates, which puts us all in a position where we can see the darker times of our own lives reflected in him. And since we are all probably doing much better than what Smith is doing in the film (otherwise we wouldn’t be able to sit and watch this DVD), the result is some nice catharsis.
However, there is no way in which I am going to say that Pursuit is a good film. In my opinion, the film is inherently flawed, and the flaws are so severe the film ends up being annoying rather than comforting or inspirational. Essentially, my problem resides with the way the filmmakers define happiness. You probably know that the pursuit of happiness has been labelled on the American declaration of independence as one of the targets of this new country, but the question then becomes – how does one become happy or happier? Sadly, the inappropriate answer most Americans and most people in general seem to take for granted is that the acquisition of material goods, status and money will lead them there. Even sadder is the ignorance in the face of fact when science tells us that the money equals happiness assumption is very much wrong: no one really knows what makes us happy, but the answer seems to be more in our DNA than in our earthly possessions. Research actually shows that inherently happy people remain happy even after severe personal tragedies such as cancer, but inherently unhappy people remain unhappy even after winning millions in the lottery. Therefore, the film’s automatic assumption that money is equal to happiness is misleading! Sure, one needs more money than Will Smith has throughout the film in order to live securely, but security is not the equal of happiness. Seen in that light, Pursuit of Happiness becomes a very disappointing film, and its ending seems particularly miserable.
The idealization of money in the film goes beyond the portrayal of money as the ultimate source of happiness. There is also the glorification of making money for its own sake: Will Smith’s character is portrayed as smart and capable, but at the end of the day he is a salesman. Whether he’s selling medical stuff no one wants or financial plans worth hundreds of thousands doesn’t matter; what matters is that Smith does not produce anything, he just talks the talk to sell another person’s creation to another person/company. Call me na├»ve, but in my book such an act can never rank the same as the act of actual creation, be it in engineering or in art. No matter how much money you make in the process of the sale, you are still riding some creator’s back. Sure, selling is a respectable and important occupation, but in my opinion the bigger glory should go to those with the ideas and the creativity and not to those that can garnish it so that others will pay for it. This point is made more relevant to the film when some of the worst trouble Smith finds himself in are the direct result of him having to kiss up to his bosses; my idea of a hero is someone that stands up for himself/herself, not someone that cowers as a long term investment in order to achieve an eventual sale.
There’s more negative to the film than the glorification of the money god, though.
Throughout Pursuit we keep hearing messages, either direct or indirect, about how one can achieve anything if one wants it enough and about how one should seize the opportunities available to him/her in order to get there. If this line of thinking sounds familiar it’s mainly because it represents nothing new under the sun, and in fact it is a mantra that has been lately repeated in the sadly successful “The Secret”. In many cases, The Secret’s strategy is indeed an effective way to achieve your life’s ambitions. However, I strongly suspect that in most cases it doesn’t work. In fact, it can’t work. Just look at the situation Will Smith is in: He is competing for a vacancy with twenty other people. Are we to assume that the only criteria that would matter at the end is will power? That could only be true in a pathetic American film, but it cannot be true in life. Life is not black and white; life is full of infinite amounts of gray in between. For every winner there are nineteen losers, and the winners are often determined through parameters that are way beyond anyone’s personal control (which brings me to say that surprisingly, race never plays a part in Pursuit; Will Smith might have well been white as far as the film is concerned). Sure, Smith is motivated by his extreme poverty, but how do we know what is going on with the lives of the other twenty? Maybe one of them wants the job even more than Smith and is even more capable than Smith, but then she ends up sleep walking down a cliff?
The Smith character is portrayed to be a person who is capable of solving a Rubik’s Cube within half an hour of first putting his hands on one. A feat such as this requires much more than sheer will power; no matter how much you want to solve a Rubik’s Cube, you need to be significantly un-average in order to solve it within half an hour. Smith is obviously endowed with skills most of us, including your truly, can only dream of. Therefore, hinting that anyone can “make it” the way Smith did through will power alone is a gross exaggeration and a blatant lie.
Best scene: Smith arrives to an important job interview with no shirt on and with paint marks all over him. He doesn’t mess about and explains things the way they were, proving to us viewers that honesty is the best policy.
Picture quality: Like many other period films, the picture is made to look like stuff from “those good old days”. Which means the noise and the lack of detail are probably intentional.
Sound quality: There are some nice moments, but overall it’s a disappointment.
Overall: The Pursuit of Happyness is a very entertaining film. However, like any other work of art, there is more to a good film than pure entertainment; a film is also a statement. That is where my problems with Pursuit lie: Ideologically, it is nothing more than a lackluster attempt to flatter those that have a lot of money, and therefore I see no choice but to severely punish it with 2 out of 5 stars.

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