DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Pursuit of Happiness

Saturday 25 February 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness (1970) dir. Robert Mulligan
Starring: Michael Sarrazin, Barbara Hershey, E.G. Marshall, Arthur Hill


By Alan Bacchus

Not to be confused with the Will Smith tearjerker, director Robert Mulligan’s story of a liberal student whose personal morals are challenged when he’s sent to jail mixes some genuinely honest and thoughtful reflection on the clash of liberal and conservative values while confusing illogical and cartoonish idealism, which for 1970, might have been risky and enlightening, but now is just plain silly.

The late Michael Sarrazin plays a bleeding heart liberal college student, William Popper, who is conflicted by his conservative and well-off family background. When he gets into a car accident that kills a pedestrian he suddenly finds himself charged with vehicular manslaughter and is thrust into the American establishment of courts, lawyers and police. His journey takes him from innocent student to convict to escapee and by the end he is confronted with the choice of existing in an establishment in which he doesn’t believe or fleeing for some other utopia.

It’s unfortunate the film has to start with an excruciating Randy Newman song. In fact, Newman scores a number of montages throughout the film creating a tone of cartoonish cornball – a boneheaded creative decision from a normally astute Robert Mulligan. In particular, Mulligan crafts a ridiculous transition from William’s shocking sentence of prison time to a joyous, happy song, thus diffusing all the drama of the judge’s decision. We then watch William frolicking nude with his girlfriend in complete bliss, as if he’s unaware he’s about to enter the lowest form of humanity in our social foundation. Is this the same Robert Mulligan? The same celebrated director of honesty and integrity who made To Kill a Mockingbird?

Of course it’s 1970, and though it seemed like a liberal film at the time it is completely out to lunch and is Hollywood fantasy of the highest order. It’s a shame because the opening act sets up an interesting intellectual take on the difference between moral idealism and reality. Unfortunately, the film shamelessly separates the pack into liberals good and republicans bad.

The Pursuit of Happiness constantly rides a teeter-totter of honest realism and complete ineptitude. At one point William breaks out of jail with one week left in his sentence, an act completely out of character, not to mention illogical. Add to this scene another puke-inducing Randy Newman song and it’s more cartooning around. The prison life is ridiculous. Dramatized with quirky characters and fun personalities, it’s a summer camp-like fantasy prison.

Mulligan also completely destroys the suspense of William’s flight to Canada with barely even a roadblock in his way. Sarrazin is a fine actor and extremely likeable, but his character and his morals are never really challenged, especially when the consequences would be going back to that fun Shawshank prison.

The title refers to William’s central, though slightly abstract and non-specific, goal of disillusionment of the hippie culture with the steadfastly conservative competitive culture of American society. His pursuit for utopia involves escape from family, prison and ultimately his own country with a selfish egotism, which, unfortunately, is never acknowledged by the filmmakers.

If you keep reminding yourself that this film was made in 1970, likely shot in 1969, at the height of the anti-war, anti-government and anti-establishment peace-loving hippidom, The Pursuit of Happiness could be enjoyable. If you can’t suspend your disbelief that a main character who abandons his country and cowardly refuses to stand up for his personal morals in the face of a government ideal he despises is actually heroic, then this film is not for you.

The Pursuit of Happiness is branded under the ‘Martini Movies’ DVD label from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

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