Jump to content

Success vs. happiness in movies


Recommended Posts

This might seem an odd way to begin this thread, but I'm working on my review of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, and I find myself thinking about the theme of success versus happiness in movies.

Briefly, the film opens with a significant change in Larry's work life. Whereas previously his life was marked by failed business adventures, he is now a successful inventor, and hosts cable infomercials for his products featuring guest stars (George Foreman!) and cheering studio audiences. Somewhat cheesy, perhaps, but it's apparently the sort of thing that Larry was always trying to break into, and now he's finally done it.

Of course this means that he's left his night watchman job far behind. Naturally his magically animated "friends" at the museum miss him, but don't we all want our friends at work to go on to bigger and better things? Well, don't we?

Battle of the Smithsonian, though, suggests that Larry may have made a mistake. His friends (at least Owen Wilson) feel betrayed and abandoned, and the Smithsonian's Amelia Earhart suggests that in his professional suit he may be "all gussied up but dead inside." Larry concludes that the secret to happiness is "doing what you love," which is no surprise, but didn't Larry always have a fire to be an entrepreneur? Is there any reason to think that being a Night Watchman, even in a magical museum, is his calling in life?

I'm far from putting down night watchmen. My father was a night watchman for years, and I sometimes went with him to that big office building and even made rounds with and for him. He also worked as a custodian. Such offices are honorable work. But I doubt if it's any man's calling, unless he lacks the faculties for more responsible and challenging work. Like inventing glow-in-the-dark flashlights.

Anyway, this line of thought began to feel familiar to me, and I wondered what other movies I might have seen that pitted professional success against happiness, possibly in unconvincing ways.

The Family Man, for one. The filmmakers themselves don't believe that Nicolas Cage (or anyone else) could really be happier living in NJ suburbs changing poopy diapers than living a glamorous single life in Manhattan.

Life or Something Like It, for another.

Any others come to mind?

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I'm not sure if this is the type of film you're looking for, but the first one that came to mind was The Candidate. Robert Redford's character Bill McKay is a lawyer who specializes in civil rights, legal aide and ecology cases. He has a way of drawing attention to these causes that catapult him into a run for a US senate seat. He doesn't set out to win (he actually doesn't want to win), but feels this is the best way to get exposure to the issues he supports.

When he wins an eleventh hour decision, he is obviously resigned to the fact that he is now part of the machine he has been fighting. The last line of the film has him dejectedly asking his campaign manager, "What do we do now?"

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Anyway, this line of thought began to feel familiar to me, and I wondered what other movies I might have seen that pitted professional success against happiness, possibly in unconvincing ways.

13 Conversations About One Thing

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

Link to comment
Share on other sites

13 Conversations About One Thing

Ah, interesting. Haven't seen it. An unconvincing example?

It's a Wonderful Life

Ah. Possibly (cynical contrarians notwithstanding) the archetypal emotionally persuasive example. (I'd link to our extensive deconstruction of the cynical contrarians, but, no title search currently.)

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

Link to comment
Share on other sites

It's a Wonderful Life
Ah. Possibly (cynical contrarians notwithstanding) the archetypal emotionally persuasive example. (I'd link to our extensive deconstruction of the cynical contrarians, but, no title search currently.)
Yeah, I remember that conversation. But just because contrarians are coming out of the woodwork does not invalidate the original sentimental approach.

Thinking it through, I feel that the Capra touches upon this theme in other places, even if it is not always codified in stories about one's vocation. Be true to yourself, and don't compromise your values for power (Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe). Don't marry for money (It Happened One Night).

And this is a common theme in many nineteenth century Brit-romances, where one's choice of lifelong marriage partner was also of vital financial sustainability. Does one marry for love, or for money? _The Wings of the Dove_ comes to mind.

Nick Alexander

Keynote, Worship Leader, Comedian, Parodyist

Host of the Prayer Meeting Podcast - your virtual worship oasis. (Subscribe)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Some that come to mind:

Jerry Maguire

The Devil's Advocate

Office Space

Then there are films that show characters rejecting success to try to find happiness, but things don't turn out so well:

Into the Wild

Funny Farm

Edited by Crow
Link to comment
Share on other sites

13 Conversations About One Thing

Ah, interesting. Haven't seen it. An unconvincing example?

No, just an outstanding film, period.

I just watched and read High Fidelity. Rob's depression over both his failing business and his girlfriend Laura leaving him, seem, to him at least, to be symbolically tied to one another. What's funny is that his success, with her help, in the end of the film isn't necessarily a financial success for his failing record business. Rather, it's an emotional success that he has broken some run-down habit patterns in his life and has truly begun to be the man he was intended to be. He becomes slightly more relational, through Laura he pursues some of his dreams, and he feels better and more confident in many of his relationships in the end. He realizes, I think, that success is about more than just monetary gain (or loss).

Edited by stef

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 weeks later...

Nia Vardalos' new movie, My Life in Ruins--

the protagonist thinks of her seemingly annoying job as a tourguide in Greece as a mere stopgap until she can get a "real" job as a history professor. By the time a teaching job comes through, she chooses tourguide job with true love over "success"

. Movie definitely falls into "chick flick" territory, but certainly worth a rental at least for lovely location shots of Greece, and a pleasant supporting cast of eccentric tourists.

Edited by BethR

There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Cars.

:)

Oh, oh... the Oscar-winning Departures! And The Song of Sparrows.

Steven, you should really see these movies. They're perfect examples of this theme, and they both will be close to my top ten at the end of the year, if not in it.

I just wrote about them for CT Movies. While success is not their main theme, it's certainly one of the subjects they consider.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Reading BethR's post, I was suddenly reminded of one of my childhood favorites: To Sir, with Love (1967). Sidney Poitier is looking for a job (as an engineer, I think) but in the meantime he accepts a teaching job in a lower-class neighbourhood, leading a class of basically rotten teenagers. He then surprises everyone, not least himself, by trying to become something more than a glorified babysitter to these punks -- and succeeding. And his success comes when he realizes he doesn't HAVE to teach the kids math or English when he could be teaching them about art and culture (and how to prepare your own food, etc.) instead. So he takes teaching as a substitute for a "real job", and then he ends up doing something other than the approved-curriculum version of "teaching" (so he's kind of two steps removed from what you might consider a professional definition of "success"). The question then becomes, will he take the higher-class job if it comes his way, or will he stay with the lower-class school and try to work his para-curricular magic on the NEXT year's students?

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Another one, a lesser-known film from "the Archers" (Powell & Pressburger)--I Know Where I'm Going. The protagonist (Wendy Hiller) is determined to marry a wealthy industrialist, but when circumstances & Nature conspire to prevent her from reaching the site of the wedding, she meets an attractive gentleman who can only offer love and a noble character. Guess which one she chooses?

Currently in rotation on TCM, also available on DVD.

Edited by BethR

There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 years later...

The subject heading isn't actually exactly what I'm after here, although the thread can certainly be broader than my immediate interest.

Like my "Girl is out of the guy's league" thread, this topic was inspired by last night's screening of Zookeeper. Kevin James plays an animal lover who is loved by the animals -- he's the best zookeeper they've ever had, they say -- and who feel betrayed when James leaves the zoo for awhile for a successful career as a salesman at his brother's pricey car dealership. Clearly, James belongs at the zoo.

I was immediately reminded of Night at the Museum 2, in which Ben Stiller has dreams of being an inventor/entrepreneur, which the animated exhibits at the museum regard as a betrayal, because Stiller was clearly meant to be a night guard at a museum. This was egregiously phony in a way that the Zookeeper bit isn't necessarily, for several reasons. Stiller's character not only has the gift for creative, meaningful work, but has a passion for it too. James, by contrast, finds himself engaged in cutthroat competition with other salesmen to sell expensive cars to people who don't necessarily need them. And of course animals are actually alive and you can kind of have relationships with them and feel some real responsibility to them.

Still, it got me wondering about other movies in which the hero chooses happiness over success, and particularly movies in which the hero is perceived to have some obligation to reject success, especially if it's because there's some sense that he "belongs" in some less ambitious lifestyle.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

Link to comment
Share on other sites

... this topic was inspired by last night's screening of Zookeeper.

I didn't realize Zookeeper could inspire much of anything at all.

Still, it got me wondering about other movies in which the hero chooses happiness over success ...

The Dude in The Big Lebowski

Peter in Office Space

and particularly movies in which the hero is perceived to have some obligation to reject success, especially if it's because there's some sense that he "belongs" in some less ambitious lifestyle.

Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey

Francis in Brother Sun, Sister Moon

George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life

Russ in Disney's The Kid

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The whole cast of You Can't Take it With You:

Maybe it'll stop you trying to be so desperate about making more money than you can ever use? You can't take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends.

I'd be willing to bet there's a whole mess of Depression-era films that take this general point of view.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Ahem. ;)

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Ahem. ;)

Oh DEAR. That's ... awful. No wonder the whole thing felt so familiar to me.

Is Kevin James transcendant? Does he raise the bar for the talking animal film???? I am in suspense! :)

There is also inspired vituperation...

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...