Monday, January 12, 2009

Happy-Go-Lucky

Ever met someone so damn happy you wanted to punch them? Pauline- call her Poppy- is one of those people. When we meet her, she has just gotten her bike stolen, and at first she's crestfallen; then she perks up and says to herself, "I didn't even get to say goodbye!" and traipses home. And we know exactly what to expect from Poppy. Or do we? Sally Hawkins builds a great character from the whole cloth, someone who seems ditzy and maybe even simple, but Mike Leigh's latest movie Happy-Go-Lucky gives her great depth, and is immensely more satisfying in its refreshing outlook on life than the banal platitudes of The Curious Crap of Benjamin's Butthole.
We get a lot of time to get to know Poppy. At first we just see her interact with friends and roommate, drinking and giggling. As we acclimate to her effervescent personality we barely question the clever wordplay she manages to infuse into daily life. Her roommate Zoe is more balanced, with sarcastic asides and an unfazeable demeanor, and it seems they're perfect for each other. We don't get a story so much as a slice of Poppy's life; slowly Leigh peels away the layers, showing her job as a teacher of young children, her relationship with her older sister, and most interestingly, her driving lessons with a man who's her polar opposite.

Scott, played by comedian Eddie Marsan, is a simmering hotpot of anger, guilt and relentless judgment. Everyone he sees has some failing, which is the first thing on his mind; if one isn't available, he can predict one. Just as we all know someone like Poppy, we most certainly know someone as angry as Scott; it reminded me painfully of the person I was years ago, the angry young man railing against the apathy, discourtesy, and corruption of the world. He's immediately funny because he's a driving instructor with road rage, but as the character Marsan created reveals itself to us, we see him less as a caricature and more as a sad man who cannot be happy.

He teaches her how to drive by naming the mirrors after fallen angels. You'll be saying En-rah-hay! next time you're a passenger with someone you've seen this with. It's with Scott, and with an angry boy at Poppy's school that the story shines. Mike Leigh keeps things real and subtle, but makes the connections clear. As the adage goes, "Give me a child until the age of seven, and I will give you the man." That is the mantra of Michael Apted's incredicle series of documentaries known as "The Up! Series," beginning with 7 Up! and following a set of schoolchildren every 7 years, the latest being at age 49. It gives a unique backward perspective of life that says more than Benjamin Button ever could.
Happy-Go-Lucky doesn't have any lessons to hammer in; perhaps it wants us to think back on Jimmy Stewart's character of Elwood P. Dowd in the '50s comedy Harvey, where he plays a very happy man who everyone is concerned about because he talks to an invisible 6 foot rabbit. He once said, "My aunt told me, you can be one of two things in life- oh-so-clever, or oh-so-pleasant. For years I tried clever... I'd suggest 'pleasant.'" Or to put it more succinctly, in Cormac MacCarthy's No Country for Old Men, the old crippled uncle says in a line left out of the movie, "I think by a certain age a person decides whether or not they want to be happy." Sometimes the choice is harder for us than others; Poppy not only made her choice, but tries to help people around her change their minds on the decision they made years ago, or are about to make, in her student's case.
Sally Hawkins justly won the Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy or musical for her performance, and the boundless energy she channels- with its brief epiphanies, and moments of clarity- is one of the most uplifting experiences in cinema from last year. I've been hounded to see Mike Leigh's Naked and Topsy-Turvy for years, and I'll be viewing them soon. And why am I so against Benjamin Button? Mostly because I expected better from Fincher, and I'm amazed that it's even being considered for best picture. And Ben Lyons is championing it, so I can't let him win.

5 out of 5 En-rah-hays.


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