Monday, January 15, 2007

The Pursuit of Happyness

Will Smith's new movie (and the misspelling is for a reason) managed to even get my cynical son wildly happy. This is one of the most heart-warming--yet grittily realistic movies that I have seen in a very long time. The story is simple: it is about a young father, struggling to make ends meet in 1981 San Francisco, who responds to adversity with courage, determination, and a positive attitude.

This a period piece, and since I actually spent some time in San Francisco in 1981, and moved to the Bay Area in 1982, there were so many little details that caught my eye and said, "Someone put the effort into getting this right." The Berkeley Farms milk cartons. The cars on the streets. The (in retrospect) ridiculous fashions.

This is based on a true story, of a young man who starts from hard times, and works his way up the ladder as a stockbroker, and in that respect alone, it makes it atypical of most people in such difficult circumstances. Of course, many people in difficult circumstances start to whine about the unfairness of the world, instead of recognizing what the hero does--that when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he wisely wrote about the right to "the pursuit of happiness"--not necessarily the right to actually reach it. Our hero gets through difficult times because at his core, his values say that in America, you can go as fast and far as your wits and ambition will carry you.

There are parts of the film that are the weird blending of reality and fiction that are inevitable in such a story. Our hero doesn't end up at a no-name stockbroker, but Dean Witter. When he looks for shelter for his son and himself for the night, he ends up at Glide Memorial Church--and it appears that the Rev. Cecil Williams is playing himself.

Rev. Williams is one of those characters that drives me a bit crazy. His theology and politics were a constant source of frustration to me when I lived in the Bay Area, but Glide Memorial was certainly very active in its efforts to alleviate suffering among the poor and homeless of San Francisco in those days, and I presume that nothing has changed since then. Of course, Williams and Glide Memorial were also intimately tied (along with most of the rest of the San Francisco political establishment) with the Rev. Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. (See also here, and here, and here.)

There is one, and only one brief moment of language you can't use on television--and I am a little mystified why it is here, unless it is to get the rating up to PG-13, since anything less makes a movie unwatchable by teenagers.

UPDATE: Here's a newspaper account of the real story. In some ways, it is more dramatic than the movie, in some ways a bit less so.

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