The Pursuit of Happiness (1971)

 

pursuit of happiness 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Justice isn’t always fair.

Everything seems to be going William Popper’s (Michael Sarrazin) way. He is a young college student with a great looking girlfriend (Barbara Hershey) and from a rich family. One night he takes a trip to the grocery store. It is raining and he accidently hits and kills a woman who walks out onto the street between two parked cars. Since William has several unpaid traffic tickets, is part of the anti-establishment movement and seems to have a generally belligerent manner he gets arrested for her death. His rich father (Arthur Hill) hires a successful lawyer (E.G. Marshall), but William is a major idealist who doesn’t want to compromise on anything and the more he fights for his ideals the deeper it gets him into trouble.

The film, which is based on a novel by Thomas Rogers, certainly makes some great points about our modern day American justice system where everything seems more based on the image that the defendant tries to present than the actual facts. Unfortunately most viewers today are already quite jaded by this and the message comes off as old and redundant.

The biggest problem is with Sarrazin. He has always had a bit of a transparent quality and I’ve defended him in some of his other roles, but here he helps to bring the whole thing down. He conveys no anger or emotion of any kind even though it’s supposedly his passion for the truth that causes him to behave the way he does. His comes off as limp and lifeless making me wonder how such a bland guy could attract a girlfriend at all let alone a really beautiful one. His character is also a bit too stubborn and strangely naïve to the point that the viewer isn’t completely empathetic with his cause as it becomes painfully obvious that he is only hurting himself by refusing to back down at all while most rational people would’ve likely buckled under just enough to get themselves out of the jam.

The script unfortunately is more intent on making a statement than telling a story as we are given no conclusion to the character’s plight. He escapes from jail and takes a flight to Mexico, but then it just ends leaving open a wide array of unanswered questions and making the viewer feel like they’ve seen only half a movie.

Ruth White, in her last film appearance, gives a strong performance as Walter’s Archie Bunker-like grandmother. It’s also great to see Marshall playing a more hard-lined version of the defense attorney role that he was famous for from ‘The Defenders’ TV-show. Robert Klein is engaging as Walter ‘60s radical college friend and David Doyle is good as Walter’s cellmate. Charles Durning, Ralph Waite and Rue McClanahan can be seen in small roles and this also marks William Devane’s film debut.

pursuit of happiness 3

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: February 23, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Robert Mulligan

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

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