Sunday, October 26, 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky: Optimism or Craziness?


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo: Simon Mein / Miramax Films

On one level, Mike Leigh’s new film Happy-Go-Lucky looks like a great movie. It begins with Gary Yershon’s bouncy theme for the main character, played at first on bassoon and moved around to other instruments as the film progresses. She’s Poppy (Sally Hawkins), who teaches elementary school in modern-day London, lives with a roommate named Zoë (Alexis Zegerman) and seems to be having so much fun in her life that when her bike is stolen — she parked it to go browse in a bookstore and tried her damnedest to get a rise out of its ludicrously taciturn clerk — her only reaction is to be sorry she didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to it.

Even conflicts with other people can’t seem to dampen Poppy’s infectious high spirits. When she’s not bringing paper bags into her classroom and inviting her students to paint them and wear them on their heads to make believe they’re birds, she’s coping with Scott (Eddie Marsan). He’s been sent by the Axle School of Motoring to teach Poppy to drive a car, and he’s a bundle of obsessively repeated mnemonics (like “En-Ra-Ha,” which is supposed to make Poppy remember the sequence of looking at the side-view and rear-view mirrors before she goes anywhere), neuroses, conspiracy theories and everything else Leigh can throw into his characterization.

The conflict — if you can call it that — between irresistible force Poppy and immovable object Scott is at the center of Happy-Go-Lucky, but there’s a lot of other stuff in this film as well. Just about every scene is intended to establish Poppy as the fal parsi — Arabic for “perfect fool” — determined to see the best out of every situation. Even when Nick (Jack MacGeachin), one of Poppy’s students, starts beating up on the other kids and she has to report him, she gets something nice out of it: an affair with the hunky young social worker Tim (Samuel Roukin) who came to her school to investigate Nick’s case and see what he could do to help.

Happy-Go-Lucky is a beautifully made film, sensitively directed by Leigh and vividly photographed by Dick Pope, who mercifully avoids the dank green-and-brown color scheme of most recent movies and actually makes London look bright and vibrant. Leigh, whose trademark is to work without a script and develop his characters in collaboration with the actors playing them, has given us a fascinating cast of supporting characters and a story in which things just happen, with the randomness and unpredictability of real life instead of the carefully thought-out progression and three-act structure one expects from a movie.

There’s only one thing wrong with this movie: I don’t believe in Poppy as a character for more than about 10 seconds, and neither will you. She’s so determined to see the bright side of absolutely everything that pretty soon her “optimism” begins to look like imbecility. Neil Jordan’s 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto (his revisit to two of the territories — Transgenderism and the Irish revolution — at the center of his biggest hit, 1992’s The Crying Game) had a similarly clueless central character, but somehow s/he was a bit more believable in the darker context of Jordan’s story than Poppy is here.

Though Poppy is most often reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s role in the 1962 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s — where she was saddled by Truman Capote, who wrote the story, with the even more ridiculous character name “Holly Golightly”! — Leigh’s dark reputation (his most recent film, also with Sally Hawkins as his star, was Vera Drake, which cast Imelda Staunton as an illegal abortionist in 1950’s Britain and Hawkins as a woman in need of an abortion) sometimes make this film seem as if Ingmar Bergman decided to try directing It’s a Wonderful Life.

There are a few points of confusion in this story that may be the inevitable result of Leigh’s working method — like are Poppy and Zoë Lesbian lovers (they’re shown sleeping in the same bed and doing physical horseplay, but they also both cruise men) — but overall the big problem with Happy-Go-Lucky is it’s too, well, happy-go-lucky. In one scene, Poppy is walking at night when she confronts an obviously crazy homeless person (Stanley Townsend) who’s as fearsome as life, the elements or Leigh’s makeup department could make him: sunburned red skin, tousled hair, grizzled beard, clothes so dirty one thinks they could stand up by themselves. After some convoluted attempts at conversation in which this gentleman spits out incoherent ravings that will be all too familiar to anyone who’s tried to talk to one of his real-life counterparts, he turns away to pee — and does Poppy do what any normal person would do in this situation, namely turn away from him and leave? No-o-o-o-o, she sticks around and tries to talk to him again after he’s finished.

In any realistic context, someone as guileless and insufferably cheery as Poppy wouldn’t last five minutes on the streets of a major city. She’d be beaten, robbed, raped or killed without so much as a thank-you, ma’am. Maybe my writing that means I’m too cynical for Mike Leigh’s delightful fantasy of a life lived not only “in the now” but in the should-be — or maybe Leigh hasn’t convinced me that a person like Poppy could even exist, much less manage to maintain her sunnyside-up outlook on life through everything she goes through in his film.