The Pursuit of Happyness: ****
This one yanked my heart out. It’s one of those great “against-all-odds” movies where you (at some points) have to spend quite a bit of energy to keep from crying. And once in a while (like when the five-year-old son tells his dad, “You’re a good papa”) you get so close to yelping that you make one of those bizarre “I’m-trying-not-to-cry” gasping sounds. For super-macho men like myself, this can be quite embarrassing (though my wife loves it).
The story, set in San Francisco in the early 1980s, is about an African American man who goes through an unbelievably tough streak. He uses his life savings to purchase a bunch of radiology machines that aren’t selling, despite his best efforts. His wife works two full-time jobs but still doesn’t earn enough to cover their expenses. The stress of being the sole financial provider for the family has her teetering on the edge of a breakdown, so when her husband decides he wants to take an unpaid internship with a brokerage firm, she snaps—and leaves him and their 5 year-old son. Shortly after this, he and his son get evicted because he can’t pay the rent. They move into a shady motel filled with others facing similar plights, but are again evicted a short time later. The story centers on how this man pursues his dream of becoming a stockbroker while he and his son live on the streets.
Happyness is based on the true story of a now-very-successful man named Chris Gardner, and it’s told brilliantly. It avoids the pitfalls of many movies in this genre—it doesn’t make Chris out to be too saintly, it doesn’t present a dualistic worldview in which all poor people are virtuous and all rich people are villains, and it doesn’t “preach” at the audience. It just lets the story tell itself.
The acting is this movie’s greatest strength. Chris’s relationship with his son Christopher is the major emotive force behind the movie, so everything hangs on the credibility of this relationship as it plays out. Will Smith plays Chris, and Jaden Smith (Will’s real life son) plays Christopher, and this explains why their on-screen relationship is so credible and genuine. They both give Oscar-caliber performances, and this makes what would have been a good movie a truly great movie.
Happyness also teaches some important lessons. As its title suggests, this is a movie about pursuing dreams. “Never let anybody tell you you can’t do something,” the father tells his son. Taken out of context, of course, this could be profoundly bad advice for a parent to give a child. But when applied to the dreams lying dormant in a child’s heart, it’s something every child desperately needs to hear. In fact, it’s something all of us adults need to be reminded of as well.
A second important lesson concerns the plight of the homeless. Happyness gives audiences a realistic glimpse into a slice of America most Americans are unfamiliar with, at least on a personal level. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are homeless, and about a quarter of them are children. Though the numbers are staggering (and rising at an alarming rate), we as a society are pretty good at keeping this truth under wraps. While the homeless are sometimes dismissed as being lazy, the fact is that almost one third of them work. In this respect, Chris Garder was not as unique as one might have thought.
This movie puts a human face on homelessness. And in doing this, it prompts us to ask a question we should never stop asking: What responsibility do we, as those who have more than we need, have toward our neighbors who have less than they need? Do we see the face of Christ in the poor and treat them accordingly (Mt. 25:34-36)? Or – as so many of the wealthy in this movie did – do we just choose not to notice?