Thursday, December 28, 2006


Director Gabriel Muccino
Written by: Steve Conrad
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith
Inspired by true story of Chris Gardner

The Physical Premise

Let's correct some easy-to-come-by misconceptions about this movie. The protagonist's pursuit is not about the pursuit of money. The true story of the real Chris Gardner and how just a short time ago he sold his brokerage firm for millions of dollars can easily lead us to the assumption that the character Will Smith plays in the movie has, as his physical goal, the pursuit of money. But, in the movie, riches is never his goal. It is always about the happiness that being a responsible father will always bring.

This confusion about the pursuit of money is understandable because the movie's protagonist is struggling with financial indebtedness, and trying to earn money is one of his principle occupations. We must understand, however, that the movie is NOT saying money brings us happiness; although, I think the movie is saying that a secure income sure does make life less painful and more comfortable, and to that degree it can bring a level of happiness.

Even Misspellings Have Meaning

Yes, the spelling of happiness in the title of this movie is wrong. But it's wrong on purpose, so I guess that makes it right. Supposedly, in the true story of Chris Gardner, he saw happiness spelled that way on a wall of graffiti and it had an impact on his turnaround.

But there is a deeper meaning in its misspelling. First, the "y" makes us look twice at the word, and consider what is wrong. The misspelling causes us not to take happiness for granted.

Second, the misspelling signifies an element of what this movie is really about. Just as "happyness" is not spelled with a "y", so a man's happiness (who happens to be a father) is not pursued by abdicating his responsibilities of fatherhood. When things get rough. For whatever reason. Many fathers in America today don't know how to spell happiness. They reject the idea that happiness is spelled with an "i". That "i" in the context of this movie means that as a father "I" must take personal responsibility for my role if I am to be truly happy. It means "I" don't run away from difficulty. Happiness with an "i" means if it's "my" dream, it's up to "me."

Third, just as good spelling has to be pursued and often corrected, so good fatherhood has to be pursued and often corrected. This story is about a man who is determined to pursue the correct spelling of happiness, (as Chris' character attempts to do literally with the owner of the childcare center building on the side of which the misspelled word appears ... along with another word that begins with "F" and which describe the opposite of happiness). As the protagonist tries to get the word spelled correctly for the sake of his son's education, so he is determined to pursue the correct concept of fatherhood that will bring his character happiness. In short Chris Gardner, as a father, is determined to spell happiness correctly with the example of his life, no matter what difficulties he has to sustain.

The Moral Premise

Honing in on the story's moral premise statement has been difficult for me. I think this is because the turning points are so organic and naturally a part of the story. This also makes the act breaks less obvious, although there are a number of turning points where our protagonist makes difficult moral decisions, which drives the drama in a new direction. These are important, so let's look at a few.

Chris preserves in trying to sell a bad product to people who don't want it.

There are numerous times when Chris' decision is both responsible and disheartening. He has invested his life savings in these scanners, and only by selling them does he have any cash to live on. They are his livelihood, although they are not a very good supply of income. So, his loyalty to selling these scanners demonstrates perseverance and a certain level of stupidity.

Chris preserves in being the father to his son.

Many lesser fathers would have given up, much like Linda does in the movie. Unlike Chris, she is not dedicated to making the family work, even though she has scarified much. Chris' decision to be a father at all costs and subsequently buck advice to give up his child to social services, or to his wife, or to unknown women in a shelter, bring upon Chris many hardships that had he not had a son in tow would have made life easier. But Chris defines happiness as being a responsible father, and accepts with that moral decision the accompanying difficulties.

Chris pursues dreams outside his box.

The bus he rides everyday is a box that tries to, ah, him in. Chris also carriers a cumbersome, and hard to dispose of box (the scanner). Both of these boxes have limited the possibilities for his life. The scanner has also boxed him into a pattern of work. It is hard for Chris to think about any other way to make money because he is so deeply committed to selling the dozens and dozens of scanners in which he invested all his money. So, when Chris gets off the bus with his box, and he sees the happy faces of stock brokers and the nice car, Chris makes a moral decision to think about a "convertible topped" box, and the "bigger box" building from which the stock brokers pour out for lunch. This moment occurs only 9 minutes into the movie, but it is clearly a moment of grace, although not the moment of grace for the movie. (More about this later.)

Chris decides to pursue the broker training program even though his wife is leaving him.

Without the support of a spouse to help care for a child during schooling, makes life more difficult than it would otherwise be. But in Chris' case, to maintain his first dream, that of being a father, his decision to go to school is made even more difficult. On the virtuous side, the training offers him a path to a more comfortable life. But, on the vice side, the training threatens his basic ability to function as a father and a human being.

Chris decides to pursue the dream of being a stockbroker by not calling on the lower fund managers as he has been instructed, but calling the CEO instead.

This decision, which I think is the pivotal Moment of Grace in the movie, is the result of the worthiest definition of "pursuit." At this moment (64 minutes into a 112 minute film) Chris has the insight that if he continues to move up the list of names, calling on the lower echelon managers, it's going to be real easy for them to say no, because Chris has no credibility. But, by calling on the boss, and being just seen in his office, Chris recognizes: (a) that the CEO doesn't need the approval of all those people below him on the list, and (b) even if the CEO says no, just being associated with him -- and being able to use his name -- gives Chris credibility with all those on the list that haven't yet said no to him. The gambit works. The CEO, Walter Ribbon (Kurt Fuller) won't give Chris any business, but the other fund managers, who trust the association that Chris has established, jump on his band-wagon and do give him business.

A Note on Possibility vs. Probability

On their way to Walter Ribbon's house, where little Christopher hopes he and his Dad get to go to a football game with Mr. Ribbon, Chris explains the difference between "possibility" and "probability." Possibility means there is a chance of a clear Yes or No; whereas probability has to do with an increase or a decrease of the chance of a clear Yes or No. It occurred to me that there are two other "p" words associated with this movie that help to explain the relationship between possibility and probability -- and explain what the movie is really about, if you forgive the apparent redundancy:

Persevering pursuit increases the probability of a possibility.

Does that need explaining? Chris' perseverance, and his leap forward approach to the pursuit of happiness and the job at the brokerage house, increased the probability, that just possibly, he'd get the 1 in 20 job.

Getting Back to Our Pursuit of The Moral Premise

The concept of "pursuit" implies getting ahead. Pursuit does not mean following at some distance forever and an era. Pursuit involves making leaps and jumping chasms.
For Chris to go from the mundane life of riding busses and lugging a heavy scanner around to driving a Lamborghini and making million dollar trades, requires more than a giant step, a leap, or even a vault. It requires inspired insight, an "Ah-ha!" moment, or the epiphany of a new paradigm.

Chris has at least two of those epiphanies in the movie. The first is when he discovers what the driver of the sports car does. This first epiphany results in a moral decision on Chris' part. He decides to investigate the broker training program. A few scenes later he submits his application. But these decisions are not of much consequence for Chris. Neither getting the application nor submitting it commits him. And even his wife thinks less of him for doing so. He could back out. The next step is that Chris takes the interview for the internship. Still he does not commit himself, although when he's accepted as an intern and doesn't immediately accept it, his sponsor is upset.

Later, however, Chris makes his second epiphany and acts on it. This is his decision to call on the CEO of Pac Bell against the advice of his instructor, Alan Frakesh (Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson.) In making this decision and acting on it, Chris risks the internship. If he messes up his relationship with the CEO, Water Ribbon, Chris will have self destructed the entire list of managers at Pac Bell and his chances at being hired by the brokerage firm.

But it is this decision that becomes his true Moment of Grace, because it changes his otherwise status quo method of following sales leads to a new level. Up until this moment Chris was calling names on his lead list much the same way he was making scanner sales calls. One call at a time. But it is his association with Walter Ribbon that multiplies his results. One appearance with Mr. Ribbon and lower managers start handing Chris their business cards without his ever placing a telephone call. And it is his ability to sell so many new accounts that he gets the job at the brokerage house.

It is at this moment of grace that defines the concept of "pursuit" in its purest form. Pursuit isn't following at a distance. Pursuit is discovering how to leap ahead. In a certain sense, throughout the movie, you might say that Chris pursues his dream to be a father and support his family. But what he's doing up until the Moment of Grace is persevering. But at 64 minutes when he is failing to get anywhere with the first four calls on the list, he begins his pursuit. Up until that time he is in a pack of 20 racers, all hoping to finish first. But, at 64 minutes, Chris begins his sprint, his pursuit, and breaks out of the box, passes the pack, which eventually allows him to achieve his quest for happiness.

Okay, now, one good way to state the moral premise might be this:

Quitting responsibilities leads to despair; but
Pursuit of responsibilities leads to happiness.

A Few Other Observations

Music, especially lyrics that play "in the scene" are very important to the meaning of a movie, if the producers know what they're doing. In PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS, Chris and his son spend several nights in a mission's homeless shelter. In so doing, they attend a worship service where the music being sung by the choir is "Lord don't Move That Mountain". The lyrics, although we don't hear all of them in the movie, give further depth to the meaning of the suffering that our protagonist and many others sustain -- and it gives them, and us in our time of need, hope and faith in the unseen wholeness of Providence.
Lord Don't Move That Mountain
1. Lord here I am again, down on my knees in prayer
Lord you promised me that you would always meet me there
Now there's a mountain up ahead, that I can't seem to climb
So I'm begging for the strength to try it one more time.

Now if there were no mountains, Lord I might forget to pray.
And if there were no trials, Lord I might even stray.
But I know the higher the mountain, the sweeter the victory.
Oh Lord ever remind that you will walk beside of me.

Oh Lord don't move that mountain, just give me strength to climb.
For if you should move each mountain, I might grow weaker every time,
And just as your son Jesus, took the cross up Calvary's hill.
Oh Lord don't move that mountain, so I may better do your will.


smart said...

This and Apocalypto were my favorite movies of the year.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Williams thank you for your superb insight. I watched "Pursuit of Happyness" again for the third or fourth time the other night and could not shake the "Lord don't move that mountain" song from my head. Now I know why. Your blog was just what I needed to understand why I enjoyed the film so much and found it so moving. I am very appreciate. God bless, Sheila.

Multisubj Yb TruthSeeker said...

I saw this film in "Star Movies Channel" yesterday evening. It was very much impressive. I thought that the protagonist would go in the way of the "Death of the Salesman" of Arthur Miller a play of 1920s. The happier ending of the Pursuit of Happiness sounds better than "the Death of the Salesman" of Miller. How the sales persons of financial services would be marketing their wares in these days of Great Depression, we have to see in the real world USA. Any way thank you for the enlightening review of the film.

Humanity@blogger said...

I watched the movie two times now. However I didn't go into this depth of understanding the message conveyed.

The review on the Movie is really good. It takes real hearts (though not brains) to understand the true message of the movie. Hats off and Thank You

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