Sunday, January 14, 2007

Money Can't Buy "Happyness"

I generally try to avoid movies that are characterized as tearjerkers. If the review (or in this case, Oprah) recommends that you bring a box of Kleenex to the theater with you, I run far away. There are enough things in the real world to be depressed over, and a movie better be pretty amazing to make me want to pay to feel bad for two hours (although I do tend to make exceptions for historical films and documentaries).

But I was invited as a guest of a friend's family to go and see "The Pursuit of Happyness" last weekend, and since they were paying, I decided it couldn't be too bad. If you've seen the commercials, you know the general plot line of the story: guy is struggling to make ends meet, he impresses a big executive at a brokerage firm with his Rubik's Cube skills, gets an internship at the firm, wife leaves him and his son, he and the boy become homeless... and because I don't want to spoil the ending (not like you can't guess what will happen), I'll leave it at that. Oh, and it's all based on a true story.

Basically, the film is two hours of depressing and 2 minutes of happiness. I wasn't moved to tears, but I'd seen all the saddest clips on Oprah (I was at home with my mom, I swear!) so I knew what to expect. But the sad factor didn't bother me nearly as much as the overarching theme of the movie, which was "money buys happiness."

I'm not exaggerating at all or even being cynical when I say that... the movie doesn't even try to suggest anything else. The reason that Chris, the protagonist played by Will Smith, wants a job as a stock broker is because he runs into a guy with a super fancy car. Throughout the film, every poor person is unhappy, angry or exhausted and every rich person is happy-go-lucky, without a care in the world (there are no middle class or even upper middle class people in the film, they're either dirt poor or filthy rich). Right after the scene with the fancy car, Chris observes the faces of everyone exiting and entering the brokerage firm, and notes that they all look so happy. Naturally, he puts two and two together and comes to the conclusion that if he finds a way to make a ton of money, he and his son will finally be happy.

This bothered me for a number of reasons. First, everyone knows that money does not buy happiness; every study has shown that the super-rich have tons of problems, and are often more unhappy than the general population. And if you've ever spent time around an investment bank or brokerage firm, you know that the people who work in finance don't walk around all day wearing huge grins. They're too busy working 100 hour weeks and worrying about how they can maintain relationships with their loved ones to smile all the time.

Second, it always drives me crazy when people make choices that make their lives more difficult. With his credentials, Chris could have very easily gotten some kind of middle class office job that would allow him to rent a nice apartment and put his son in a good daycare program. Instead he takes a 6 month UNPAID internship. And even then, there's only a 1 in 20 chance that he'll get a full time job. If not, he'd be back where he started, broke and homeless. Am I the only one who finds this irresponsible?

Third, it's clear that Chris loves his son and is willing to sacrifice nearly everything to keep them together, but why wasn't there ever a suggestion that they could be happy even without money? Or without a ton of money? The recurrent theme in film and literature of love triumphing in the worst conditions seems to be flipped in this case, as Chris and his son's lives are instantly made better when he's given a job at the firm (okay, I ruined it). There's no question that homelessness, or not being able to provide a good education for your children, or the dissolution of a marriage are not all contributing factors to Chris's emotional state, but the movie blatantly suggests that no one who is poor is happy, and everyone who is rich is.

The movie had a lot of flaws, but there were still a number of admirable things about it. As many reviewers have pointed out, it's nice to see a film that depicts how difficult it is for so many people to simply stay afloat financially, and how one or two small setbacks can push someone into homelessness. The realities of two parents working multiple jobs and still barely getting by, is a subject rarely discussed in film or television, and it's certainly refreshing. And Will Smith gives one of his best performances, charming the audience to fall in love with him even as he makes (at least in my opinion) terrible decisions. Of course, it would be impossible to root against someone in his position, but he does a great job.

There's really no way I could recommend spending $10 to see this at a theater. But if you're a huge Will Smith fan or you're like my mom and love any movie that will make you cry, hold off and rent it when it comes out on DVD in a few months.


Jesse said...

I enjoyed the movie much more without feeling the need to take it as a universal statement about money being the solution to all of life's problems. The point, for me, was that we got to see the reasoning behind these seemingly stupid [irresponsible?] decisions: take the safe route, the steady job (which he thought he'd already done with his portable bone scanner gig) or take the biggest risk of his life to catapult him and his son in to unimaginable success?

If he'd taken a middle-class job and eased in to a comfortable routine until the end of time, it wouldn't have been the tale of triumph that made the events of Chris Gardner's life worth telling.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I didn't like the movie; everything kept going wrong but it wasn't "heart-tugging". I cannot believe Will Smith has been nominated for Best Actor - he had the same facial expression throughout the movie. I think his son is a better actor!

Anonymous said...

Oh! I would not consider the bone scanner "scheme" the safe route since he was not making any money unless he sold them. The safe route would have been working at Wal-Mart!