Historically, Americans have flocked to theaters to find happiness, hope and heroes in film. Film producers were enormously successful at drawing in audiences and inspiring audience. In recent years, however, most movies have been more depressing than inspiring. Their quality has been mediocre at best. Nevertheless, a few movies of this decade have broken away from mediocrity and provided America with cinematic heroes. The Pursuit of Happiness is one of these. Indeed, it is one of the few movies of this decade that has the potential to remain relevant to viewers in decades to come.
The Pursuit of Happyness differs from other movies, partially because it subscribes to some of the myths that the old, classical films of prior decades followed. In addition to this, the Pursuit of Happyness portrays sadness and frustration, without scaring or depressing its audience. Furthermore, it is funny, without being frivolous. Meanwhile, it is artistic, while at the same time realistic. Best of all, it is inspiring. It is the sort of film Americans can look to for heroism and hope that is sadly lacking in most of today’s films.
According to Sociologist Herbert J. Gans, until the 1950s, movies were the main “staple” of America’s entertainment diet. (Gans, 1964, p.327). At that time, says Gans, Hollywood films followed a specific formula, which consisted of four myths. The first is what Gans calls “moral heroism”, (Gans, 1964, p.327). which involves a hero striving to bring about good or “social justice” in a lawless land. The second, which Gans labels “youthfulness”, is the myth that young people had to get past an erroneous notion that their elders were wrong to bring about their goals (Gans, 1964, p.327). The third Gans labels, “romance”, which suggests that the best reward a hero can achieve is the love of someone attractive and loving. The fourth and perhaps the most powerful, Gans labels the “Justification of social mobility.” (Gans, 1964, p.327). According to Gans, this is the myth that people can pursue wealth “without being corrupted by it.” (Gans, 1964, p.327).
Departure from the formula
The films of the 90’s depart from these myths. Films like American Beauty have no real hero. No man striving for a social good. Instead, the main character spends most of his time trying to seduce his high-school-aged daughter’s friend. Love is not a reward worth seeking for anyone. The things that American Beauty’s characters see as beautiful are a paper bag in the street, a dead man and sex. Children do not gain a better respect for their elders. Indeed, at the end of the movie, the adults are painted in a much worse light than the children. One turns out to be a gay Nazi, another turns out to be having an affair that is both silly and revolting. The last nearly becomes a pedophile. Social mobility is not a goal for the main character. Instead, he is content to work at a fast-food joint. This sort of movie may paint an accurate portrait of some of today’s families. However, it is not at all inspiring. It provides no hope, no happiness and no hero to its audience.
In the 2000’s, movie producers seem to have noticed America’s lack of inspiration. Movies like The Lord of the Rings and Spiderman have fairly formulaic plots. Romance becomes a great reward in both film series. Heroes strive for good and social justice. Youth learn to respect their elders. Yet, these movies are so fantastic that it is hard to accept them as realistic. In the Lord of the Rings, Elrond the Wizard comes back from the dead. In Spiderman, Toby McGuire’s character only succeeds at what he does because he has super powers that the average American does not have. Therefore, the heroes presented by most movies of this decade are not realistic role models for audiences. The Pursuit of Happyness is a notable exception.
In addition to being based off of a true story, the Pursuit of Happyness follows a very similar formula to the movies of the 50s. It’s hero is Chris Gardner, a salesman, striving against a whole brigade of social injustice. Gardner is a man who graduates at the top of his class. Rather than achieving his dreams of greatness, he spends his life savings on bone-density machines, which he hopes to sell to hospitals. They prove harder to sell than he thinks. Because doctors refuse to buy his machine’s, Gardner is late with taxes and rent. His wife places all the blame on his shoulders, although he tries his best to keep his family afloat. Meanwhile, all around Gardner, Washington Workers bustle about happily. “Why”, Gardner asks, “Can’t I feel like that?” Here is the injustice. Gardner is bright and well educated, yet he lives a life of poverty. He hits rock bottom when he is kicked out of his apartment and left to sleep on subway benches and in restrooms with his young son. Yet through it all, Gardner fights the good fight. He is the 50s formula hero.
Rather than following the second myth, The Pursuit of Happyness reverses it. It is the elders who need to overcome their view of Gardner in order for his dreams to be realized. Gardner tries, day after day to get an interview with Mr. Twistle. Yet, Twistle rejects Gardner, because Gardner is not college educated. Twistle changes his mind after Gardner follows him into a cab and then solves a Rubik’s cube. Twistle is not the only man to doubt Gardner. After Gardner secures an internship with Twistle’s firm, he attempts to win Mr. Ribbon’s trust to manage his account. Ribbon rejects his offer because he finds out that Gardner is new to the firm. Yet, in the end, because of Gardner’s hard work and perseverance, he is the one intern out of 20 chosen to be placed in a paying job at the company.
In the 50s, romance was the best prize worth winning. But romance doesn’t pan out for Gardner. The reward he pursues is the ability to take care of his young son. This is a welcome departure from 50s myths. In today’s society, it is really quite novel. Romance often takes a front seat in American movies, but children are often portrayed as burdens. In movies like Fifteen and Pregnant and For Keeps, young girls choose to keep their babies – but rather than becoming joyful over getting to keep them, the girls live lives of stress and anger. Gardner, on the other hand, fights hard to keep his son and cries tears of joy when he is finally able to provide for him. His emotions at the end of the film are more powerful than those of most romantic heroes in this decade’s movies.
The Pursuit of Happyness follows the fourth myth, that of social mobility to the letter. Gardener works his tail off to move from poverty to wealth. At the end of the movie, he says, “This part of my life is called, `happiness’.” Why is he happy? First, because he has won himself a place in the Dean Witter corporation. Then, because he founds his own company and becomes a self-made millionaire. The Pursuit of Happyness does not show Gardener being corrupted by wealth, rather, it shows wealth making him a better man. Although wealth does sometimes corrupt men, the message the Pursuit of Happyness sends to audiences is that working hard pays off. This is exactly the sort of inspiring story many of today’s films lack.
The Pursuit of Happyness is a bright, inspiring movie with all the benefits of a formulaic 1950s film. It provides America with a realistic hero and a feeling of satisfaction. Its ability to portray sadness without depressing its audiences is commendable. It’s music fits its scenes and its ability to make a simple object like a Rubik’s cube an integral part of the story’s plot is admirable. Nevertheless, the film is not entirely truthful and it’s place as a great film in America is threatened by its lack of care in abstaining from slander. If it survives criminal accusations, however, it may indeed hold a place of greatness in American film.
Gans, Herbert J. “The Rise of the Problem-Film: An Analysis of Changes in Hollywood Films and the American Audience.” Social Problems, Vol. 11, No. 4. (Spring, 1964), pp. 327-336. Retrieved via JSTOR.<http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0037-7791%28196421%2911%3A4%3C327%3ATROTPA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-5>
Wenn. “Feud over Real-Life ‘Villain’ of ‘Pursuit of Happyness'”. World Entertainment News Network. 14 Jan 2007. <
Morgenstern, Joe. “Shattering Story Is Told Astutely In ‘Mighty Heart’; Jolie Is Fierce, Tender; Sappy.” The Wallstreet Journal 22 Jun. 2007, eastern edition ed.: 1. Retrieved via ProQuest.<http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=1292814041&sid=1&Fmt=2&clientId=44561&RQT=309&VName=PQD>