I struggled to find a properly descriptive title for this week’s column and failed miserably. I’m actually referring to movies that beat up the main character so badly, for so long, in such depressing detail, that while the performances in the film may be extraordinary, one wonders if such subject matter could be portrayed any other way.
I’m thinking about the movie Precious, in which young Gabbie Siddibe plays the title character, and said character is put through the wringer multiple times, hung out on the clothesline, beaten until dry, then chucked back into the choppy water again. Her character is the victim of multiple devils, including her drug-addicted hell-bitch of a mother, portrayed with teeth-gnashing intensity by comedian Mo’Nique, and multiple incidents of incest (and pregnancies). It is that last bit that, while horrific on its own, ultimately throws down the final insult to Precious and her harrowing life. I won’t spoil the plot any farther, but it should suffice to say that there is no tapping of ruby slippers at the end to carry her back to safe shores.
While not as graphic and painful, but equally depressing, Will Smith’s turn in The Pursuit of Happyness totally left me puzzled. There are people who swear up and down and sideways that this is a great movie, and I’ll admit that Smith as the got-it-down wise guy is nowhere to be found on the screen. His performance presents a complete character and yet, again, considering how much foot gets buried in his hindquarters in the story, you’d have to be a pretty rotten actor not to be able to get the audience to sympathize. It’s based on the true story of Chris Gardner, who lost his wife under the strain of a poor career choice. When she left, he fought to keep, and remain with, his young son.
This is all well and good, and is not uncommon with other Hollywood flicks about people struggling until they make it. It is the relentless nature of Gardner’s misery that sticks in my teeth, and this is no mere exaggeration when I say there is literally no emotional ray of light in this thing until the last ten minutes of the nearly two-hour movie. Any time the tide seems to turn for him, even slightly, something sneaks behind him, shouts not so fast in his ear and gives him a karmic wedgie. How could Smith not bring the goods, or in this case the ever-oppressive ‘bads’, to his role? As impressive as his son’s debut is, Jaden Smith’s turn as Gardner’s son naturally reacts to the actions of his father, creating a Moebius strip where the actor’s relationship ends and the character’s relationship begins. This takes nothing away from young Smith’s work. A bad child actor is a bad child actor, and Jaden Smith is not one of them.
Regardless, I finished The Pursuit Of Happyness feeling an emotional drain not unlike having seen The Terminator for the first time, only the killer robot was society and the constant reminder of dreams denied. And still, people love Happyness. They love it with an intensity that totally befuddles me. It was as if the film’s payoff was worth the beatdown of the preceding hundred-or-so minutes, as if the whole “past is prologue” mindset justifies the happy ending. There damn well better have been a happy ending or else the suicide rates of theater-goers that season would have been astronomical.
There is something else to consider here, and it’s something I find difficult to admit. It’s not all gloom and doom. There are lots of words that describe my demeanor: laconic, cynical, skeptical, depressed, you name it. If there’s a description that’s been associated with an anti-depressant commercial, it’s been attributed to me at one point or another. And yet, even in my worst moments, days, weeks, what have you, I can’t say that the darkness is altogether relentless. Even in the worst of it, I still get a laugh in here and there, still can enjoy a song on the radio and sing along to it, I still get streams of hope inside the dusty, bone-dry channels of hopelessness, the kind everyone has felt at some point in their lives. It’s not to say that I am elevated to a feel-good movie montage state of being, but it is to say that I’ve never been the one-legged man at the ass-kicking rodeo.
The benefit of films like The Pursuit Of Happyness and Precious, then, is that they allow viewers in their myriad tragedies to say, “Well my life is bad, but it ain’t that bad.” There is a catharsis, albeit a slightly fantastical one, in that. I just wonder if that’s intrinsically a good thing or if it’s pure manipulation (which is a strange thing to wonder, since all forms of storytelling are, at the core, forms of emotional manipulation.) I just wonder what the goals of the Feel-Bad Hit of the Season really are, beyond that mental parallelism, of looking across the way at fellow travelers who are suffering much more than you, and of course, to be prime-cut Oscar steak. Giving credit where it is due, had either of these movies been done poorly, their characters would have been cartoonish, their exploits little more than a Perils Of Pauline cavalcade of misery and nobody, from the Academy on down, would have given a red hot damn about them. That people are responding at all indicates that strong work has been recognized.
But man, I need a breather. For five minutes, would you just let up?