The pursuit of sappyness

Posted: Dec 29, 2006 12:00 AM
The pursuit of sappyness

As a rule, I like to give well-intentioned movies the benefit of the doubt, saving my barbs and jibes for the loathsome likes of “Borat.” The exception to this general rule is when I come across a film that strikes me as not only over-praised, but whose obvious faults are over-looked because most people, including even critics, don’t wish to appear churlish towards a movie that shows a black man being a doting father.

The movie, as you have probably guessed, is “The Pursuit of Happyness.” It is the story of a married man, Chris Gardner, in San Francisco who risks his life savings buying up a bunch of bone density monitoring machines without, it seems, looking into whether there might actually be a market for the things. His wife, in the meantime, is working double shifts as a waitress to keep a roof over their heads and to put food on the table for the two of them and their five year old son. For her, the final straw is when Gardner is tossed into the slammer overnight for failing to pay a slew of parking tickets. She takes off for New York, leaving Gardner to fend for himself and the boy. Which, however unseemly her own behavior is, happens to be what he wants.

Things continue to go from bad to worse for Mr. Gardner, even after he manages to talk his way into the intern program at a stock brokerage. Seeing as how it’s a six month gig without a salary, it’s sort of like talking your way into the poorhouse.

For me, one of the movie’s major faults is that it’s so repetitive that every ten minutes or so, you get a sense of déjà vu. It’s just one calamity after another. Usually they require Gardner to go running through the streets of the city in pursuit of some crumb who’s making off with one of his machines. What makes these chases so bizarre is that while nobody in the Bay area seems to want to buy one of these gizmos, everybody and his cousin wants to steal one. I mean, you wouldn’t be able to pawn it for a nickel and, unless you were a doctor who dabbled in mugging, you wouldn’t have the slightest use for one.

What I could never figure out is how it was that Gardner, a seemingly likeable guy, didn’t seem to have any friends. Although he’d lived in San Francisco for years, he didn’t know a single person, man or woman, in the entire city willing to baby-sit his kid or allow him and the boy to sleep on a sofa when the only option was for them to sleep on the floor of a public toilet!

Another problem I had with the movie is that Gardner aspires to be a stockbroker. I have nothing against brokers, but if I’m going to spend two hours rooting for a guy, I can’t help wishing he aspired to something beyond getting filthy rich.

It’s not as if his superiors are splendid role models. The guy he answers to is a nasty piece of work who lords it over him, treating him like trash. And even though they know he’s not earning a dime and has a kid to support, one boss stiffs him on a $20 taxi ride (leading to yet another chase scene, albeit one in which, for a change, Gardner is the one being pursued) and another boss hits him up for five bucks and then takes his own sweet time paying him back.

In a way, it’s the depiction of the brokerage business that does so much to make Gardner’s dream seem so tawdry. I mean, what sort of business puts a bunch of people through a grueling series of tests to come up with just one candidate -- and doesn’t even pay the poor slobs minimum wage?

In the inevitable crawl at the end of the movie, we learn that Mr. Gardner, an actual person, went on to create his own brokerage house and become a millionaire. We aren’t told if his firm’s intern program was any more humane than the one he’d just barely survived.

I also couldn’t help wondering if he ever had second thoughts about what he wound up doing with his life. After all, stocks go down as well as up, and when they plummet, they can easily wipe out the life savings of investors.

So when he sold clients on, say, Enron, the stock market’s equivalent of bone density monitors, did he ever wonder how many of them wound up sleeping with their kids on the floor of a public toilet?