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A Reflection on The Pursuit of Happyness: What Are We Pursuing?

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The new Will Smith movie, The Pursuit of Happyness is wrong and not just in how it spells "happyness". Movies that have hidden and misleading messages bother me — and I don't like the underlying messages in this movie.

The movie presents an important concept and then stomps all over it. The concept comes when Will Smith's character, Chris Gardner, is opining about Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. He muses that Jefferson called it the "pursuit of happiness" because you could never quite catch it. The running, the chasing, the pursuit would be elusive with the prey remaining just out of reach. The right answer seems to be realizing what is truly important in life, yet how does the movie end the pursuit of happiness? Happiness is achieved when Chris Gardner lands a six-figure commissioned salary brokerage job.

The bright and shiny happy people in the movie were the rich. The poor were downtrodden, mentally ill, hostile, and dishonest. The poor guy won't pay you back the $14 he owes you, but the suit will fork over the $5 you gave him for cab fare. The message of the movie was MONEY = HAPPYNESS.

The movie conflates two concepts and doesn't distinguish them — survival and success. Most of the movie is focused on survival. The movie captures the truly horrific feeling of an empty wallet. Halfway through the show, I was thinking — "Hell, I feel this way at home and I didn't have to pay $7.75 to feel poor." I am amazed every day at the thin line between disaster and survival. I see individuals everyday who are walking that tightrope or worse, who have fallen off already and just barely managed to grab on to the tightrope and are now moving hand over hand across the chasm of poverty. Over 90% of the people filing bankruptcy in this country have had one or a combination of these three things happen to them:

  1. Lost job or income.
  2. Divorce
  3. Major medical issues.

In the movie, Chris Gardner suffers the first two and it nearly destroys him. He fights against all odds and eventually escapes the poverty. This struggle and display of the human spirit is uplifting in classic underdog fashion. Yet, when Chris gets to the top, he has learned nothing by his near escape from disaster. If he had had the same will and desire and only slightly less talent, this story would have been a tragedy rather than a triumph.

Some facts about the "real" Chris Gardner flash upon the screen at the end. In 2006 he sold a minority share in the brokerage he started for a multi-million dollar profit — a profit that originates from a host of Chris Gardners slaving away at dead end jobs and who will never see the success of the protagonist.

He succeeds wildly, but I couldn't shake the tragedy of all those who didn't have his skills, perseverance, or luck. The movie wanted to create a sense of loss and then have it redeemed through hard work and perseverance — the realization of the American Dream. Survival is the American Nightmare. Something is wrong when the United States Bankruptcy Code is the closest thing we have to a National Health Care Plan. Something is wrong when the richest country in the world has a large homeless population. Something is wrong when Pay Day Loan stores are more prevalent than churches. When did you last read the Declaration of Independence? Read it again. Think about how things are now. The seeds of rebellion are sown in economic disparity and unequal treatment.

The only happiness that comes from the single-eyed pursuit of wealth is one that is misspelled and misplaced.

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About Kent Winward

  • emily

    i think that happiness does depend on money somewhat. when you can’t afford food or a home, of course you’re going to be unhappy. however i do think this movie does somewhat encourage the idea that happiness comes from getting what you want, such as when he buys the candy bar for his son.

  • valerie jean s. tagalogon

    The acting is good! Will Smith played the protagonist and Will Smith’s real son played his son in the movie. The son was said by the director to be the best kid for the job. I believe it. Chris Gardner, the man who wrote the book/lived the life on which the movie was based, said, “the kid has more talent in his big toe than Will has in his whole body.”

  • Chandan

    I agree with your critique. Somehow the underlying message of this movie always eluded me. If it had focused on achieving Happiness (rather than a high paying job) in spite of all the misery, that would have made it pretty interesting.

  • Jalyn

    I think that the actual happiness was not the money but being able to provide for your family and not worrying about what tomorrow’s is going to bring or where you will lay your head.

  • Rajesh Soni

    I like jaylyn’s comment, you have understood the situation and point of view of the person,the movie is based on!!

  • Mike

    i think the part of happiness was when chris and his son were running around finding homes… they were in a horrible situation but they still remained happy and made the best of each situation…For example when they slept in the subway washroom or “cave” as they explained..he made it into a happy scenario even though it was one of the worst things possible