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The Pursuit Of Happiness

About four years after I wrote this, Will Smith made a movie by the same title. It's actually a really, really good movie, but did that version have a scene (set in the petting zoo of a Bible-themed amusement park that was secretly the headquarters of a terrorist organization bent on world conquest, mind you) where the hero takes out an enemy by throwing a poisonous snake at him and then quipping, "Kiss my asp!"?

No. No it did not. And my version spelled the title properly, too.

The heroes of this one were a team of videogame designers, world famous for their popular games and for their colorful antics when called before a series of ongoing Senate hearings about game violence. The "Wolverine" of the group was Jack Balthazar (I'm sorry), the team's concept artist and - deep breath - PTSD-afflicted/half-Japanese/martial artist/conspiracy theorist/weapons expert/motorcyclist with permanently dilated eyes and an American Flag trenchcoat. Also on hand: Brainy Guy, Skeptical Guy, Badass Military Advisor Guy (they were making an army game) Bisexual Whip-Wielding Goth Chick, Guy Who's Only There to Betray Everyone in Act III and The Red Herring (to distract from the Betrayer guy, of course).

The main story turns on a Columbine-style massacre/suicide at a high school. The perpetrator turns out to have been a game tester who'd been working on our heroes' upcoming title, and he'd left graffiti and audio recordings indicating that he was unquestionably acting out behaviors, catchphrases, etc., from the game. Having been handed their smoking gun, the pro-censorship lobby passes sweeping laws and the public turns against the gaming culture, burning and looting game stores and arcades in a wave of violence that Jack un-ironically compares to Kristillnacht. At one point, an outraged crowd spontaneously becomes a lynch mob and attacks a child who'd been walking by with a Game Boy.

Jack, naturally, suspects something is amiss and soon uncovers the truth. The massacre was staged as the first part of a massive, coordinated effort by a secret society of religious fundamentalists to turn the United States - and then the world! - into a theocracy. Armed with this knowledge (and an absurd number of guns, tactical gear, katanas and more) they go on the offensive to out the conspiracy, clear their names and save the country.

To call Pursuit the fevered work of an Angry Young Man would be charitable. It was a disaster; an egomaniacal, id-driven screed in which literally every aspect of society or philosophy I was directly or indirectly infuriated by at the time was an active part of the bad guys' scheme and the good guys were equal parts sanctimony and wish fulfillment. Jack Balthazar was the absolute worst kind of what we'd later call a Mary Sue character. He was always right about everything, innately skilled at anything he needed to do and flawed only in the sense that he could stand to be more patient with people who just weren't as awesome as him.

As you might expect, the game references were constant and incredibly forced: Jack lived in a Victorian mansion filled with classic arcade cabinets. An action scene involving smoke bombs kicked off with the original Zelda's "Dodongo dislikes smoke" line being quoted (I'm pretty sure I threw an "It's dangerous to go alone ... " in there, too). At one point Jack comes back to life after near death by drowning, during which he hallucinates himself as a child putting a quarter into an arcade machine to give himself a "Continue" (a gag I've since repeated in two or three subsequent, slightly-less-crummy scripts). My crowning achievement, though, was a hacking scene wherein the good guys correctly guess that a password needed to open a folder containing proof of the conspiracy is "JUSTIN BAILEY" because the computer's desktop background is a collage of photos of Australian models wearing swimsuits.

So ... yeah. The next time you hear me say that a movie had a terrible screenplay, rest assured that I know a thing or two about terrible screenplays.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

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