Saturday, November 15, 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008, Mike Leigh)

At first glimpse, Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is one of those unbearably chipper types who seem to take it as their mission in life to force their good cheer on the world. It certainly would appear that she’s that sort in the film’s opening scene, in which she visits a bookstore and tries to cheer up a clerk who clearly can’t be bothered. At this point, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Happy-Go-Lucky to turn into a story in which Poppy, sooner or later, gets that grin (metaphorically) slapped off her face. Thankfully, Leigh has other plans. Instead of making us anticipate his upbeat heroine get taken down a few notches, he actually lets us get to know her, and if there’s one thing we learn from our time alongside Poppy, it’s that her happiness comes from within. Rather than being one of those oblivious sorts who smiles because she’s too dense to comprehend the shit that surrounds her, Poppy’s happiness is born from a healthy sense of perspective- she knows her place in the world, and she doesn’t need anything more than that to be happy. This idea becomes clear during a scene in which she visits her little sister, who is married with a baby on the way and a new home, and who is as stressed out as Poppy is relaxed (this is also the most prototypically Leigh-esque scene in the film).

The trouble is that Leigh’s storytelling, such as it is, feels too neat, with the drama in the film centered almost entirely on Poppy’s interactions with Scott (Eddie Marsan), a bitter driving instructor prone to emotional outbursts. From their first scene together, Leigh positions Scott as Poppy’s polar opposite, and whatever tension can be found in Happy-Go-Lucky comes from the friction that builds between them. Which is fine, I suppose, except that (a) the difference in tension between the Scott scenes and the rest of the film makes the other scenes feel slight by comparison, and (b) by so neatly cordoning off the really dramatic stuff from the rest of the movie, much of the human messiness that can usually be found in Leigh’s work is lost. Aside from Scott, most of the other characters who surround Poppy tend to accept her as she is, even the ones who don’t really know her. And while it’s true that her kind of happiness is generally infectious, surely there are people who don’t always respond to it and aren’t complete psychos. By limiting the spectrum of human behavior this time around, Leigh has made the world he’s created with his performers far less varied, and consequently less interesting. None of this, however, is any fault of Hawkins, who manages the difficult feat of creating a character who’s genuinely warm and caring, and takes a role that might have been insufferable in other hands and makes her really lovable.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

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