A CAPITAL OFFENCE : Gabriele Muccino’s ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ [1/10]

If the organisers of the World Economic Forum in Davos are looking for a movie to show their guests this weekend, one current release which seems guaranteed to please the assembled throng is The Pursuit of Happyness – an unapologetic paean to brute capitalism rather offensively masquerading as the heartwarming tale of a dad and his kid.  Based (rather loosely and, once you know the actual story, very much self-servingly) on the autobiography of penniless-man-turned-megabucks-stockbroker Chris Gardner, it's an old-fashioned star vehicle for Will Smith – who's been rewarded with a second Oscar nomination for his pains. Smith's bankability has been cemented by the film's better-than-expected performance at the box office (budget: $55m; current North American takings: $150m and rising) – and, according to the film's own very limited terms of reference, in which financial success is pretty much the be-all and end-all of existence, The Pursuit of Happyness must therefore be counted as a success. In most other regards, however, the movie is a disgrace: a pernicious misuse of celluloid that, rather than increase the "happyness" [sic] of the world, is more likely to compound and magnify its misery.

The setting is San Francisco in 1981 – though we have to take this on trust somewhat, as the picture's attention to period detail is shaky at best. Chris (Smith) is a genial, cash-strapped bloke in his early thirties who has ill-advisedly sunk his life-savings into a business venture which involves him selling cumbersome bone-scanning equipment to medical personnel. As he laboriously hefts the (seemingly-indestructable) scanners around the vertiginous streets of SF, his wife Linda (Thandie Newton) has to work double shifts at a laundry so that the family can make ends meet. Their 5-year-old son Christopher (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) is an adorable, tousle-haired moppet who, apparently not yet old enough for school (the film is decidedly hazy on this subject), is looked after at a rather down-at-heel $150-per-month "daycare" facility under the inattentive eye of Mrs Chu (Takayo Fischer).

The Gardners' financial plight is mirrored by the state of the nation's economy: the newly-elected President Reagan is shown on television speaking about the government's large budget deficit, and how the Republicans aim to solve the crisis by cutting back federal programmes. Programmes designed, of course, to help cash-strapped families just like the Gardners. As Chris struggles to sell his machines, his financial troubles quickly mount: Linda's patience finally runs out – she leaves him and moves to New York (after a discussion about child-custody which lasts all of 30 seconds); his tax arrears result in a hefty penalty; his landlord kicks father and son out due to non-payment of rent. The pair are, effectively, homeless, trudging the streets in search of shelter: they sleep one night in a train-station toilet, and rely on church and charity institutions for a place to sleep.

During all of these dire travails, however, Chris has been leading a double-life: after a chance encounter with a stockbroker (when Chris was dazzled by the latter's fancy red sports car), he impulsively decides to pursue a career in high finance – eventually making his way onto a "competitive internship" programme at a top money-house which might just translate into a high-paying job. Chris thus gambles his welfare (and, let's not forget, that of his small child) on a longshot proposition – albeit one about whose outcome the audience, given the nature of Hollywood, is never in the slightest of doubt.

We might have been able to swallow such a strategy if the character himself had been at all likeable. But Chris, doting parent though he is, is pretty much a louse from start to finish. He seems to see no further than himself and his child, incapable of realising that he isn't the only one suffering from poverty and hard times: he tries to diddle a taxi-driver out of a fare; smashes a car windscreen (he's hit by the vehicle when inattentively running to work) and never even thinks of offering to pay for the damage; pushes an elderly woman out of the way so that he can get on a bus ("hey man, that's not cool!" opines a fellow queuer); can't understand it when his patient landlord (who's clearly little better off than he) eventually insists on payment. His treatment of his hard-working wife is, shall we say, unsympathetic – Newton is stuck with one of the most thankless roles in recent Hollywood history, and one can only imagine what the real former Mrs Gardner makes of the way she's presented here (the custody issue was much more complicated than the film makes out.)

Motivated by the most naked form of dog-eat-dog ambition, Gardner essentially "succeeds" only at the expense of others: his "rise" is achieved at others' expense. From what we see in the film, his "stockbroking" job (under the benevolent eyes of the most avuncular of employers) actually consists of persuading customers of other houses to transfer their pension funds to that of his own employer, rather than anything resembling the creation of wealth. At one point we hear him on the phone to a potential client: "Are you familiar with tax free municipal bonds?" he charmingly enquires. The issue of tax – or rather, tax evasion – runs throughout the film: despite numerous letters from the authorities, Chris is outraged when they finally take direct action. "The government can stick their hand into your bank account!!" he yelps, "… No warning!" If he'd reflect for a moment as he trudges, kid in hand, from homeless shelter to homeless shelter (and, again the facts of the case are distorted in the interests of Cinderella Man-style Hollywood schmaltz), Chris might have realised the link between tax and the coffers of local and national government, and how such monies might ease the plight of those stuck at the bottom of society's barrel. In the film's terms of reference, however, 'government expenditure' is an unneccessary evil: who needs federal programmes when there are church groups around to offer a helping (if conditional) hand? And has anyone connected with the film ever actually been to a homeless night-shelter? As depicted in The Pursuit of Happyness, such places are pin-drop quiet establishments frequented by uniformly placid individuals – not such a bad place for a kid to kip, you'd think.

And what about that child? Young Christopher is, needless to say, an adorable little chap: accommodating, articulate, startlingly bright. Rather advanced for his years, even, both physically and mentally. This could of course be a creative choice on the part of the film-makers – but it could also be down to the fact that Jaden Syre Christopher Smith (and let's hope he opts to abbreviate that mouthful of a name in future) was actually seven years and two months old when filming began. This wouldn't normally be a problem, except for the fact that Christopher Gardner's presence in daycare is a significant element in the plot (a mis-spelled mural on the outside wall of the daycare facility even gives the film its cutesy, bad-example-to-the-kids title).

The audience may find themselves wondering why on earth the little lad isn't in school – although this would have caused some headaches for scriptwriter Steven Conrad (also responsible for the only slightly more bearable The Weather Man), as the school authorities might have had something to say about his dad's merits in the child-raising department. In fact, Gardner Jr was barely a toddler during the period when the action takes place – dramatic license was used to alter the character's age. And who can blame Will Smith for wanting to work with his own talented offspring? Seeing the pair interact is one of the film's few positive aspects – but even this is undermined by the whiff of nepotism which surrounds Smith Jr's casting (we're all-too-strenuously assured he was one of 1,000 children considered for the role) and which goes squarely against the picture's meritocratic, work-hard-for-success message.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with hard work – and there's a role for "inspirational" movies which can give hope to those struggling painfully with life's pressures. The trouble is, The Pursuit of Happyness overtly presents solutions to these problems which will be of direct relevance only to a tiny minority ("hey, let's all become stockbrokers!!") and which – as American economic history from 1981 to the present day indicates – are likely to create many more desperate (and broken) families such as the Gardners. Watching this film, you start to wonder whether director Muccino and scriptwriter Conrad are in fact dyed-in-the-wool socialists, crafting a cartoonish parable of trickle-down right-wing capitalism – at one point, Gardner even kicks himself for "trusting a hippy" (a territorial hazard in San Francisco, you might think). In interviews, however, the pair – and Smith – burble hackneyed platitudes about the 'American Dream,' suggesting they actually support the film's grasping, me-first-screw-you attitudes.

It's not even as if Muccino and Conrad compensate for their material's obnoxiousness with any particular technical accomplishment. Conrad's script is tediously (even suffocatingly) repetitive, featuring numerous scenes in which Gardner must breathlessly run from one corner of the city to another – he goes in pursuit of stolen/mislaid scanners on no less than three separate occasions (sparked by implausibly coincidental – and, one suspects, entirely fictional encounters which make the sprawling city come across like an underpopulated village). There's an excessive amount of voiceover, including a tedious recurring motif in which Chris rather redundantly informs us how he labels various phases of his existence ("this part of my life… this part… is called 'running'…"). The picture is as so-so to look at as any film shot in this spectacular city can be, featuring an inexplicable series of changes from one type of film-stock to another, while Andrea Guerra's score misses no opportunity to insistently underline each and every one of the film's countless moral lessons ("You got a dream? You gotta protect it. You want something? Go get it! Period!"). And the credits roll to a predictably treacly number entitled "I Built A Fence Around You In A Father's Way." By this stage, you're puzzled as to how something so sugary can leave such an emetically sour taste – until you realise that The Pursuit of Happyness is syrup that's turned quite sickeningly rancid.

Neil Young
27th January, 2007

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS : [1/10] : USA 2006 : Gabriele MUCCINO : 117 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Empire cinema, Gate complex, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 10th January 2007 – press show

for other films rated 1/10 (or 2/10) check out the Jigsaw Lounge Diorama of Dishonour