The Pursuit of Happiness is yet another middling drama about angst-ridden ’70s youth culture that ends up feeling less like a sensitive tribute to a thoughtful generation and more like a condescending satire of mixed-up kids. Gangly Michael Sarrazin plays William Popper, a New York City college student from a privileged family. He lives with hippie activist Jane Kauffman (Barbara Hershey), and he uncomfortably straddles her world of ideals and his family’s world of Establishment values. Driving in the rain one night, William accidentally hits and kills an old woman who steps into traffic. He’s arrested. William’s sensitive father, artist John Popper (Arthur Hill), arrives on the scene to help William through his legal troubles, but the family’s stern lawyer, Daniel Lawrence (E.G. Marshall), drips contempt for William’s screw-the-man attitude.
Ignoring Daniel’s advice to keep his mouth shut, William makes a scene during his first hearing—he gives a naïve speech about how the legal system isn’t interested in empirical truth—and gets thrown into prison. All of this confirms William’s impression that society is broken; as William whines at one point, “There’s a nervous breakdown happening in this country, and I don’t want to be part of it if I don’t have to.” Also thrown into the mix is William’s loving but racist grandmother (Ruth White), the personification of small-minded Old Money.
Based on a book by Thomas Rogers and directed by Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird), this picture means well but undercuts itself. William isn’t truly an idealist; rather, he’s a slacker uninterested in committing to anything. Thus, when William breaks out of prison and tries to flee the country, his actions don’t seem charged with us-vs.-them significance. Sure, the filmmakers communicate the central idea that William resents the game he’s being asked to play (feign adherence to Establishment values, and you can get away with anything), but William is so passive that he’s the least interesting person who could have taken this journey. Sarrazin’s perfunctory performance exacerbates matters, as does the blunt screenplay. The movie also leaves several promising storylines unexplored, so characters including a crusty detective (Ralph Waite), an imprisoned politician (David Doyle), and a mysterious pilot (William Devane) pass through the story too quickly. Each of them, alas, is more interesting than the protagonist.
The Pursuit of Happiness: FUNKY