I’m a longtime fan of WaPo film critic Stephen Hunter. He’s a crackerjack writer – witty and insightful – and I find his film reviews to be very trustworthy. Perhaps we simply have similar tastes.
In his review of Will Smith’s new flick The Pursuit of Happyness Hunter strikes an ironic note that might not go over with a too-literal-minded conservative reader, but stay with the review, because it (and the film) are worthy of attention.
You can look up “The Pursuit of Happyness” on the Internet Movie Database and see that a guy named Gabriele Muccino made it. Or you can pay attention during the credits and learn the same thing.
Except it’s wrong. He didn’t make it. You know who made it?
Your old man made it.
It’s certainly got the old man’s lessons, the ones you thought were so full of hooey. Remember when he told you, “Stick to it until it’s done”? What did he know?
And then there was: “Get along with your boss. He’s your boss because he’s earned it.” What a crock.
And then, “Don’t whine, don’t make excuses, just do the job.” Boy, that one was a bummer. What was he, a Republican or something?
And finally, worst of all, the one nobody wants to hear, it hurts so much: “Work like hell.” I hate that one.
Intentional snark aside, Hunter gives the film a very good review, even as he plays to those perpetual adolescents in his audience who would sneer at the cross-stitched-proverbs feel of this film, which is the real-life story of one Chris Gardner, played by Will Smith.
The movie is about that moment in a man’s life when even that fragile grip on the American dream is sundered. It all goes away. [...]
That’s what makes it all the more painful to watch: The proud man who’d dreamed for so much, humiliated not merely by his failure but by the fear and pain it inflicts on his son (played beautifully by Smith’s own son, Jaden), which he can see graven in the young face every day, knowing that to a young mind the lack of security is killing to heart and mind. There’s no doubt that Chris is filled with rage at the unfairness of it all, that he yearns to blame all his problems on the various larger contexts that all go unstated in the movie.
That may be what he wants to do, but here’s what he does: He shuts up and goes to work.
Wow. Those lines could have been written about George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” another film in which a man’s dreams are subjugated by circumstances and by his own maturity, which dictates that he put aside what he would love to do–repress himself, in modern parlance–for what he “must” or “should” do.
People tend to think of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in warm, fuzzy terms – it has that eternal “good guy” James Stewart in it, after all – but really, Frank Capra’s Christmas classic is a study of a fully realized character, and George Bailey is no Dudley Do-Right. Recall his antsy disdain for Bedford Falls as he sits at the dinner table with his father, or the way he furiously kicks open Mary’s front gate when he reluctantly visits her, or the way he grabs her and shakes her saying, “you listen to me, I don’t want any of this…”
Recall that while he might have “saved” Clarence’s life, he didn’t like the pudgy angel very much, and he wasn’t above brawling or harassing a teacher unfairly, or traumatizing the family he loved.
George Bailey was no saint – he was simply a man in full, and that means that to some extent he hated his life as much as he loved it, but he did not fail it. That is part of the the Psalm of the Common Man – what all of us face in one measure or another. In “The Pursuit of Happyness” we see a contemporary George Bailey in Chris Gardner.
He’s no paragon of moral perfection (who could sit through something that suffocating?). Instead, we are aware always that he’s right on the edge of breaking down, that he has a mean temper, that he suppresses his “real” self in order to become a “business” self that all the white folks will like, employing that most loathed of all old-fashioned virtues, repression. In fact, he’s about as far from letting it all hang out as can be: His ethos is, let nothing hang out, and beat them at their own game. And he does that, whether the game is Rubik’s Cube or pushing money market funds.
Hunter’s review recognizes that the virtues most commonly disdained by the movers and shakers of pop culture, values considered “conservative” by the sophisticates or “too white” by audiences of color, have worth and meaning. And he ends his review with a challenge to all of those readers who would purse their lips into a “all too cool, all too knowing” sneer. Anticipating them he writes:
You could say: It’s all a bunch of bull. After all, Chris Gardner was clearly an extremely gifted man with a need to succeed deep and pure. Maybe that’s true, and maybe in your case, it’s hopeless, because you lack those gifts. But there’s really only one way to tell, right? Get busy.
Good for Hunter. Good for Chris Gardner. Good for Will Smith for daring to make a picture espousing those values. Good for the nation, too, if people can manage to embrace the movie instead of letting it get buried in the usual blanket of partisan bickering, boycotting and bellicosity (if bellicosity is a word!). I’m going to see it, anyhow.
Also, take a second to read Ed Morrissey’s insightful review of It’s a Wonderful Life which may help you to see this often-played standard with new eyes, as it did me!
Advent, Bailey, Roarke and Us