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Dikaiosyne

A Critique of "Pursuit of Happyness"

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I would simply like to offer my thoughts on this in my opinion flawed movie. While the premise of the movie is refreshing. its execution is in my opinion mediocre.

A few points.

1. While the first half of the movie is creative and enjoyable, the second part, after the seizure of his bank account by the IRS, the movie falls into a malaise. It is at this point that movie stops being, to use Ayn Rand's definitions, romantic and begins to be realistic. Now, being homeless and having no money is a cause for frusteration and depression, but in my opinion, Will Smith's character shows little grace under pressure. I can understand the hero myth almost necessitates a hero must go through the dark woods, into something that truly threatens him, but he must remain a hero. Especially in the scenes where he yells at his son, that speaks more for his failablity than his heroism. And while it is understandable for a person in his situation to be at wit's end, it destroys some of the sympathy and admiration developed before.

It is also of note that the commentary and exposition of the main character stopped at this point as well. What is seen is Smith's character merely reacting to his circumstances, simply enduring, and not really thinking. The Why for all of these hows fades into the background. This may have been a side effect of the movie's makers not wanting to truly embrace greed and selfishness as virtues, and it also leads to a cluncky chruch sequence that feels out of place. And while Smith pretending with his kid that "dinosaurs" where after them, and that is why they must sleep in a subway bathroom, it would be better if the audience explictly understood that they are doing this, pursuing the main character's dreams, because it is the right thing to do. It was done better in the beginning of the movie when the useful counterpoint of the unimaginitive and fearful wife was provided. The sequence left me drained and frankly depressed, and this is not resolved satisfactorally at the end for a cathersis.

2. The "exceptional" quality of the main character is not played up enough, while the symbol of the rubik's cube, and his short solliquiy on his work habits where useful, one never gets a sense that Will Smith is actually a good stock-salesman. There is the one line that got, "31 Pac Bell accounts" and the empty words that he has done an "Exceptional Job," but at that point in the movie I had no idea what these words actually meant! Considering how big a factor numbers and money had become in the plot and how much the audience could relate to these concepts they where conspiously not used to qualify his success. While I could empathize with the 5:30 PM pickup from daycare, the $250 selling price of his bone scanner, the $600 he lost to the IRS, nothing is really satisfactorally given to say that he has really made it. Honestly I wasn't sure that there was a useful justification that Smith actually deserved the job besides the fact he was the main character! Just one peace of dry humor, and the movie basically ends.

3. The Ending is unsatifactory. As had been hinted before, the ending doesn't do the movie justice. There is no great release and carthesis of exultation that should have happened. The ending while still probably realistic, it wasn't romantic. While it does try a little bit the "state of happyness" line, I really didn't feel the joy that should have came with the happy ending! All of the built up kinda fizzles in the one crucial moment of the movie.

I may be nitpicking or may just not have gotten it, but I think that this movie could have been much better and I cannot give a the place of honor and love I can give other recent romantic and heroic movies like Serenity or V for Vendetta. Sorry for the essay but for a movie with so much potential, it is disappointing to be let down like this and wanted to understand why it disappointing in this fashion

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You have some interesting points there...

Regarding the first one, i´m not sure I fully agree with the part that he stopped thinking. However, it´s not shown very well. There were a couple of scenes I really liked. The first one, in the homeless shelter when the lights were out and he is reading his book. And the second, where he fixes the bone density scanner. I think this showed that instead of just sleeping and doing nothing, like the other homeless people, he was instead working hard - doing everything he could - to fix his situation.

I completely agree with points 2 and 3. I think too much focus was placed on his struggle. I guess the film makers wanted to show that he worked very hard to get where he wanted, but they should have shown (better) that he was actually good at it too. They should have shown when ge got those Pac Bell accounts, and that he really did an exceptional job.

Too little focus was placed on the "happyness"-part. The ending was like "so he got what he wanted, and now he´s happy". Sure, that´s nice, but what did it really mean for him to be happy and why did we not see him happy and victorious? I wanted to see him make lots of money, getting his own home, bying that Ferrari, getting his son into a better day care or school etc. etc. After all that struggle, there should have been pure joy - it should have been shown not just told.

Edited by Alfa

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Slight spoilers:

Also, if this character was so brilliant, why could he not understand that investing your entire savings in a risky product is a terrible idea? OK, it was a single lapse in judgement. Wait, no it wasn't; he continued to "invest" in the product for years after it was clear he should cut his losses and do something else. How about this: get a dead-end job that at least pays the bills. And why did he pressure his wife to have a child when he knew he couldn't even support himself? Or, if he could support himself, did he not think that a kid was going to change his financial situation? Also, taking the investment job was an embarrassing decision. Dean Whitter wasn't the only firm in the city, the proceeding job outlook was dismal, and Smith's character had more important things to consider: his son. Taking the "job" for me as a viewer basically sealed the fate of his kid to live in pretty awful conditions for an uncertain amount of time.

Those thoughts ruined the character for me at the beginning. And the movie did not provide any sort of 'turning point' where he changes his approach to his life, so I also was left with empty claims on his brilliance, and even to believe them my most optimistic assessment of his person was someone who would just not apply himself, over and over again.

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I would simply like to offer my thoughts on this in my opinion flawed movie. While the premise of the movie is refreshing. its execution is in my opinion mediocre.
Flawed? Mediocre? Pshaw!

The second part, after the seizure of his bank account by the IRS, the movie falls into a malaise. It is at this point that movie stops being, to use Ayn Rand's definitions, romantic and begins to be realistic.
I'd disagree; Les Miserables was extremely depressing, and it is rightly considered romantic. Throughout all of Gardner's tribulations he never gave up and always believed in his capacity to make a better way - he remained a hero. If that's not romantic, what is?

The "exceptional" quality of the main character is not played up enough, while the symbol of the rubik's cube, and his short solliquiy on his work habits where useful, one never gets a sense that Will Smith is actually a good stock-salesman.
That seems like a nitpick. Given the insane odds that he'd fail, it was clear that he was a hard-working salesman. And while I agree that it'd have been nice to have more indications of his salesmanship/math skills, this IMO wasn't something that'd make a good movie into a mediocre one

The ending while still probably realistic, it wasn't romantic.
Why do you say that it was realistic (as opposed to romantic)?

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Jens Post here.

There are 3 aspects to this movie that I have not seen in a while, and surprisingly a few are philosophical in nature.

1. The admiration of wealth - as signified by the stock broker in the ferrari, and the portrayal of all other businessmen as benevolent and good.

2. The little discussion (as narrator) of Jefferson's intent when he wrote "the pursuit of happyness". Now I know that the character was wondering dispairingly if Jefferson meant pursuit, as in perpetual pursuit - never to acquire. However, the aspect of pursuit as a right to action gets highlighted in this discussion, and his dispair is overturned by the last aspect.

3. The pursuit and acheivement of one's goals as the acheivment of happyness. This was made incredibly concrete and explicit when Smith walks out of the brokerage firm after winning the entry level job and (again as narrator) says, "Now this part of the story... this part is called happyness."

The film has flaws for sure, but those 3 things were consistent in the theme of the movie throughout.

Edited by KendallJ

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I've noticed that novice Objectivists tend to review art based on superficial characteristics rather than its theme and overall quality. They focus on concretes which are either insignificant or superficial (not supported by the plot/theme.) For example, I remember someone thought that "The Island" was a great movie because the protagonists were defending their right to life - whereas it was yet another blow-em-up flick with a stupid premise. Likewise, the failings of the protagonist in "Happyness" are unimportant in relation to overall theme. Furthermore, some of them are necessary plot devices to establish the central conflict of the story.

There's more to be said about this - but I suggest a simple and powerful starting point for judging art - how does it make you feel? Your emotional reaction provides an indication of how your values respond to the work's overall sense of life. Take this measurement just as the curtain closes - before your reaction is affected by any explicit analysis of the movie.

Edited by GreedyCapitalist

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I thought it was a very, very good movie (not quite great).

(very minor spoilters follow)

It's important to notice how Gardner handled the situation when he failed: He did not say "Oh, evil society how dare you not buy my bone density scanners." Rather, he took all possible steps to remedy the situation. Some have argued that the film never shows a "turning point" where he changes his approach to his life, but isn't it possible he never changed his approach at all? He seemed like he was always driven to get the best possible for himself and for his family (his investment in the scanners, while ill-advised were an attempt to improve their economic situation).

As far as "Dean Whitter" not being the "only firm in the city," such judgement strikes me as unfair; Chris Gardner obviously had a lot of factors he had to juggle: taking care of his son, worrying about food and shelter, and improving his and his son's conditions. Dean Whitter might have been Gardner's best prospect; in any case, I don't think the film gives us enough information to judge.

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Dean Whitter might have been Gardner's best prospect; in any case, I don't think the film gives us enough information to judge.
I disagree. There was enough information for me to not only judge Smith's character's decisions, but to spoil the movie for me as well.

I've noticed that novice Objectivists tend to review art based on superficial characteristics rather than its theme and overall quality. They focus on concretes which are either insignificant or superficial (not supported by the plot/theme.) For example, I remember someone thought that "The Island" was a great movie because the protagonists were defending their right to life - whereas it was yet another blow-em-up flick with a stupid premise. Likewise, the failings of the protagonist in "Happyness" are unimportant in relation to overall theme.
When I was walking out of the theater, I was disappointed; a movie's message or theme is only valuable to me if it is believable (that is, supported by its concretes), and this one was not. This was largely in part to how Smith's character, the singular focus of the movie, was conveyed. By my judgement, his pursuit of the good/happiness was rendered meaningless as it was not really very good at all!

I would actually prefer a believable movie about something reprehensible to a non-believable one about something admirable. The latter actually hinders making a case for the admirable, while the former would only do a good job of showing something horrible for what it is. Also, "not supported by plot/theme" seems to imply that a theme is not determined by the concretes of the movie, which I think is backwards. The concretes let the audience know about the theme.

At any rate, if this movie did what those who liked it say for them, great. But I'm sticking by my judgement (new label as an Objectivist n00b aside, David :D ).

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I would actually prefer a believable movie about something reprehensible to a non-believable one about something admirable.

You are aware that it's a true story, right?

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You are aware that it's a true story, right?
I had completely forgotten about that! But it doesn't really make a difference; even if the real man doesn't have the flaws of his fictional counterpart, the movie didn't show that. And lots of different themes may be stressed in a movie based on the same events of real life, anyway, depending on which facts are included.

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A movie's message or theme is only valuable to me if it is believable (that is, supported by its concretes), and this one was not... his pursuit of the good/happiness was rendered meaningless as it was not really very good at all!

I would actually prefer a believable movie about something reprehensible to a non-believable one about something admirable. The latter actually hinders making a case for the admirable.

Roark blew up Cortlandt Homes (i.e. NOT his own property), admitted as much in court, and got off scot-free. That's not believable.

In Atlas Shrugged, the moochers finally get the all-important man who they think can save their bankrupt schemes. And the moochers guard this critical person with Keystone Cops. More believable would be that he'd be locked up in Fort Knox, and that the Strikers would all (or almost all) be killed, probably before they even found Galt.

Would you actually prefer the Fountainhead more if Roark had been sent to jail? Or if the Strikers had been massacred in their rescue attempt?

Speaking for myself, I wouldn't. Even if these were a bad/unbelievable plot devices, that's chump change compared to the everything else in the book.

Slight spoilers:

Also, if this character was so brilliant, why could he not understand that investing your entire savings in a risky product is a terrible idea?

Investing your entire savings in a risky product is not necessarily a terrible idea.

He continued to "invest" in the product for years after it was clear he should cut his losses and do something else.
Hmm. Are you sure of that? I didn't think he ever had more money to invest, and they did unload a whole lot of those things into the apartment in the scene.

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I As far as "Dean Whitter" not being the "only firm in the city," such judgement strikes me as unfair;

Um, yes, considering that he mentions in his narrative that you HAVE to complete the 6-month internship program and you CAN'T APPLY IT TOWARDS ANY OTHER FIRM. So, wherever he decided to go, he'd STILL have to do THEIR internship. Dean Whitter was accepting applications. Ergo, Dean Whitter is the place.

I don't think it was necessary to gauge Gardner's earnings and progress, and I think this was intentional on the part of the director . . . notice they never said what score he got on the exam! This is because the numbers weren't ultimately important in determining whether he got the position, it was his interactions with the people and the times when he impressed them with his savvy, skill, and articulation (such as the Rubik's cube incident). Besides, unless you were an actual stockbroker, you probably wouldn't have the background to really comprehend the numbers, anyway, so it'd just be a floating abstraction and thus, meaningless. It is an esthetic mistake in romantic fiction to include things that aren't important factors in the choices people make, so including the numbers would have made the movie more "naturalist", not vice versa.

This is not limited to this movie, btw; re-read the building of the John Galt Line in AS. Not once does Ayn Rand mention how many miles of track have been laid or how many there are left to go like some kind of fund-raiser thermometer. Instead she mentions the real obstacles: snowstorms, obstructionists, equipment failures, etc. The only time she really uses quantitative analysis is when Rearden is talking to the looters about the "Steel Unification Plan", and that's for characterization of Rearden's superlative mathematical ability, not to give you actual concrete information about his mills!

I'll tell you what would have constituted REAL flaws in the movie: making much of race or making much of religion (religion is mentioned, but only very briefly and second-hand, in the joke by Gardner's son: "I sent you two big boats, you dummy!" and at the choir, where they don't even actually sing about God or Jesus, just about struggle and the things that keep you going . . . notice that Gardner picked up his SON, which was his top value and the thing that kept him going even when he might have given up on himself). Neither was done, as it would have been in some kind of liberal piece-of-crap social-critique "movie". Gardner was just some . . . guy, could have been you, could have been me, could have been any one of us, and he accomplished what he set out to do.

Edited by JMeganSnow
Fixed spelling

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I've noticed that novice Objectivists tend to review art based on superficial characteristics rather than its theme and overall quality.

It's not just the novices: read Nick Provenzo's reviews sometime. Any time I see a movie he's reviewed, my opinion is almost always diametrically opposed to his. And it's not limited to Objectivists: I know some diehard Catholics that get stuck on superficial concretes in movies to the point where I wonder if we watched the same movie. The problem isn't newness to Objectivism, the problem is unfamiliarity with the method of evaluating something esthetically.

I will occasionally indulge in little nitpicks with movies (read my review on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), but this is NOT how you evaluate art. Evaluating art properly means starting with the whole, which means that if nitpicks can ruin a movie for you, you're not doing it right. Looking at how you feel is good, but if you have the kind of emotional setup that blows details way out of proportion this is not going to help you.

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Just saw the movie and loved it, more so because it is based on a true story. Clearly Gardner is a bit of a risk-taker, who made it because of his many virtues. Perhaps if one were writing fiction, one would have made him still more virtuous. Even if the story is partly true, this man is admirable.

... the joke by Gardner's son: "I sent you two big boats, you dummy!"
Interestingly, that joke fit very well with the theme of the movie, because the joke is saying that one has to pursue opportunities that present themselves.

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Just saw the movie and loved it, more so because it is based on a true story. Clearly Gardner is a bit of a risk-taker, who made it because of his many virtues. Perhaps if one were writing fiction, one would have made him still more virtuous. Even if the story is partly true, this man is admirable.Interestingly, that joke fit very well with the theme of the movie, because the joke is saying that one has to pursue opportunities that present themselves.

I saw it few weeks ago and I liked it a lot. Eventhough I knew the story ends well, toward the end, it became painful for me to watch his struggle.

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I find the movie overtly long, melodramatic, with artificial characters and little chemistry. It's not the worst movie I've seen, but it's definitely mediocre.

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I find the movie overtly long, melodramatic, with artificial characters and little chemistry. It's not the worst movie I've seen, but it's definitely mediocre.

Sometimes I am seriously shocked by some of the things I read on objectivist forums. The central theme of this movie was staying true to your goals even in the face of overwhelming difficulties and obstacles. If you have ever struggled toward something and encountered many setbacks and complications, I think you would appreciate this movie much more. If you have gone through things like that, and do not appreciate this film, then I don't understand you at all.

Gardner perservered because he was honest, sincere, and dedicated, he didnt lie or cheat his way to success. As this was a true story it makes this all the more powerful. It is not merely an ideal represented, but a concrete achievement of those ideals, a real person overcome a tremendous struggle and ultimately became very succesfful. You think of the difficult times he went through pursuing his long term goals, working at that internship all day, making no money at that, trying to sell those bone density scanners at night, and needing to stand in line at the homeless shelter for hours every night, and he did this for weeks or months, one can't help but admire him.

The best part of this film to me, was right in the middle of these struggles as he was in the homeless shelter in the middle of the night he finally repaired the light on that bone density scanner. That powerfull moment signified a turning point in the film and in his life. After that, all of his hard work and planning started to pay off, one item at a time.

This is a wonderful and powefully emotive film, I recommend everyone see it. Anytime you struggle through a difficult time, working full time while going to school full time, or working full time and trying to start a business, or trying to go to school, while working, while taking care of your children, this movie is a powerful inspirational piece. It makes you want to work harder, to be even more resolute and motivated, because it is a stunning concrete example that the universe is not malevolent and random, but that "the world you desire can be won. it exists. it is real, it's possible, it's yours"

- Michael

Edited by Matus1976

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Posts like that reinforce my optimism. Thanks.

If you don't mind, please do not quote the entire post directly above yours to add a brief comment. Thanks.--JMeganSnow

Edited by JMeganSnow
removed quote

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Sometimes I am seriously shocked by some of the things I read on objectivist forums. The central theme of this movie was staying true to your goals even in the face of overwhelming difficulties and obstacles. If you have ever struggled toward something and encountered many setbacks and complications, I think you would appreciate this movie much more. If you have gone through things like that, and do not appreciate this film, then I don't understand you at all.

I didn't say that I don't like the film's message. I just don't feel like it was well done.

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I just don't feel like it was well done.

Can you give us some examples (other than floating non-ideas like "no chemistry"--what does that even mean?) to back this up or are we just supposed to take your feelings on faith?

If I were going to criticize at all, I would say that there were some mildly distracting elements such as the narration (which they stopped during the emotional scenes in the middle of the movie because it would have completely ruined them).

Edited by JMeganSnow

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Can you give us some examples (other than floating non-ideas like "no chemistry"--what does that even mean?) to back this up or are we just supposed to take your feelings on faith?

Alright. The biggest problem with the movie is that, as others have pointed out, it spends about 110 minutes of downbeat gloominess on how bad Will Smith's character had it instead of balancing it by fleshing out his success. As is, it is essentially a story that can be told in one hour stretched into two.

Will Smith's acting is solid, if somewhat flat. Thandie Newton doesn't have much to do the entire film except screaming. Jayden Smith's character, besides looking cute, is under developed. I'm unsure if this is due to the limitation of the script, the direction, or their abilities. Probably a combination of all three. Furthermore, the relationship between Smith and his son lacked chemistry. We only really get the sense that Smith loves him because he kept repeating it on screen, although in actuality throughout most of the film the kid is more or less just a burden that he needs to drop off at day care.

The only really interesting part of the movie, to me at least, is when Will Smith got the job and began his broker trading. However that is only a small fraction of the film. In the end, the message in the movie is simple: Don't give up on your dreams no matter how hard you had it. It's a message that has been done many, many times before, in better movies. That's why when compared to the field, while by no means a bad movie, The Pursuit of Happyness is definitively mediocre.

ps - Will Smith's voice over was quite unnecessary as well -- most of the lines were pointless and distracts from the film. I am of the school that thinks the voice over in films in general, unless is used for very specific reasons, should be limited. Unless the narration is done in order to reveal informations otherwise unknown to the audience (and even then only if there is no visual way of presenting it), I really don't see why I need Will Smith telling me "Now this is the part of the story I call Riding the Bus".

Edited by Moebius

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Okay, now that's helpful.

Firstus: any story is about conflict, i.e. obstacles. Most movies don't spend a lot of time dwelling on the characters' success because at that point the conflict goes bye-bye. I mean, the stereotypical wrap-up after the climax is something like "And they lived happily ever after." Six words! So I'll dispense with that objection on those grounds, although you can still be discontent if you thought the movie was too long. I don't really have any metric for how long a movie ought to be . . . it's subjective as far as I'm concerned and probably based on how much patience you have or your bladder size.

We only really get the sense that Smith loves him because he kept repeating it on screen, although in actuality throughout most of the film the kid is more or less just a burden that he needs to drop off at day care.

I find this statement kind of interesting. One of the greatest demonstrations of love is going to incredible effort to keep someone at your side even when they are a burden, assuming of course that you're accepting this burden because you think the price is worth it. He could very easily have put his son in foster care or ditched him off on his mother or whatever, but Chris kept his son with a determination that approached monomania. This is an example of "don't tell, show".

Now, they didn't really go into any discussion of why Chris was so attached to his son, but that is both difficult to dramatize and unimportant to the story. Wouldn't it have been miserable if the director had included some psychologized "reason" why Chris was particularly attached to his son instead of just taking it for granted that a man loves his child? Ick.

One of the best parts of this movie, to me, is that they didn't play up the relationships big-time . . . in fact a lot of the interactions in the movie are very subtle. It's not just a huge play on your emotions, you have to engage your thinking, evaluating mind to really understand what's going on and all the various facets. In my mind this makes it vastly superior to over-dramatized tear-jerkers.

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I really enjoyed this movie, too, for many of the reasons listed above. But I'm wondering if all the tools Gardner took advantage of in the movie (ie: shelters, food shelters, public transportation, etc.) would and should exist in a free market society. Those are the things that kept him and his son alive while he was trying to get a job, and I can't see how he would have made it without those resources.

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