Sony // 1971 // 93 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // September 9th, 2009
"I don't want to run anymore..."
Sony's line of Martini Movies promises the viewer "One part top-shelf martini, two parts celluloid history and garnished with a hint of camp." Judging by the release list, these films range from the "more history than camp" (Carol Reed's Our Man in Havana) to "more camp than history" (The Buttercup Chain). The Pursuit of Happiness seems pitched right in the middle of these two extremes. It's a well-made film that has some recognizable star power and a decent message about the problems of power. However, its in-your-face campus politics and somewhat immaturely anti-authoritarian stance mark it as a product of its time, which gives it a slightly campy feel.
The Pursuit of Happiness is the story of William Popper's journey of self-discovery in the American judicial system. He's poised right between a large, conservative family and his life at college with his radical, protesting girlfriend. He seems happy to vacillate between those two lives until one rainy night when he accidently hits a woman, killing her. This introduces him to the justice system, which doesn't seem to care about right or wrong, accident or intention. Instead, William's lifestyle is put on trial, and he's found guilty. This leads him to run, but he can't run forever.
There's an old saying that a liberal is just a conservative who's never been mugged. The idea is that liberals want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt until they get personally attacked, which makes them want to hide behind the system. Of course, the opposite might as well be true, that a conservative is just a liberal who hasn't yet been screwed by the system. That's what Popper's plight dramatizes in The Pursuit of Happiness. At the film's start, Popper obviously has his misgivings about his conservative family, their background, and the system they represent. However, it's not until he gets a good look at the system during his dealings with the court that he loses his faith completely. It's a fascinating idea to put into a narrative and, while the story could be a bit more complex, it gets points for being ahead of its time.
The movie also scores serious points for casting. Michael Sarrazin combines matinee-idol looks a strong dramatic presence in playing Popper, while Barbara Hershey brings a fresh-faced innocence to his activist girlfriend Jane (and, for fans, she also gets naked). All of Popper's family is played to perfection as uptight conservatives, and those representing the justice system are appropriately menacing.
All is not, however, perfect, and there's a reason The Pursuit of Happiness is included in the Martini Movies line. It doesn't have the overtly campy sensibilities of some of the other films in the collection, but it also hasn't aged well at all. There's something about the inarticulate representation of social protest, the goofy look at student agitation, and the overly stuffy interpretation of old-money characters that keeps the film quaint in a way other more vital films have avoided. Also, while I liked Sarrazin's screen presence, the character of William Popper is poorly written. He's halfway between an enlightened social activist and a bumbling victim of the system, with the faults of both and the strengths of neither.
I'm not sure it was worth it, but Sony has produced a fantastic looking transfer, free from serious print damage, grain problems, or compression artifacts. The audio is a little less impressive, but gets the job done on this largely dialogue-driven film. The only extra on the disc is a theatrical trailer. Like other Martini Movies, The Pursuit of Happiness includes a martini recipe on the face of the disc. This time it's the "Happiness in a Glass Martini" which includes equal parts vodka, gin, rum, tequila, triple sec and four parts of citrus soda. After a few of these, most viewers won't care much about the film, and be able to mimic Michael Sarrazin's look of confused inaction with surprising ease.
I can't say this film is campy enough to be fun to laugh at, and as a dramatic vehicle has very little to offer. Only those looking for a time capsule or a peek at Babara Hershey's naked form should bother with this one.
The system may not be perfect, but this film is still guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13