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The Feel-Really-Good Movie of the Season: Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review



Friday, October 10, 2008

Directed by Mike Leigh

Reviewed by Sarah Silver

With films as attuned to the feminine mystique as Career Girls and Secrets and Lies under his belt, Mike Leigh has proven an uncanny ability to tap into the female psyche. His latest, Happy-Go-Lucky, explores a society of tight-knit single girlfriends who live by their own rules and share a unique vernacular to which we must adapt or be hopelessly lost. The continuously flowing dialogue is challenging at first, but once we relax enough to be carried along with the overlapping waves of jokes and remarks, the occasional quip pierces through the tornado of words and strikes a funny bone, sometimes before we realize why we are laughing.

The title Happy-Go-Lucky refers to our Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a character belonging to everyone, giving equal time and attention to aloof shopkeepers, schizophrenic homeless men and rageaholic driving-school teachers. Poppy is beyond bubbly; she is ebullient, the state of her resilient soul communicated via interludes of her bouncing on a giant trampoline. A Character with a capital C, all art direction, costuming and cinematography point to Poppy. She is the sore thumb sticking out wherever she goes, all clanging bangles and awkward elbows as she enters a room sporting 16 different colors. She can leave no bit of dialogue uncommented upon, nervously ticking off responses and occasionally free-associating her way through entire conversations. Equal parts Mary Poppins (perhaps her name is a conscious reference) and Eliza Doolittle, Poppy brightens lives while simultaneously putting people off with her otherness. Hawkins’s performance, unwaveringly ramped up to maximum level for most of its duration, will no doubt divide viewers, some of whom will perceive her as irritating, while others will be charmed. But, like most Leigh films, Happy-Go-Lucky is essentially a character study, and few could argue that Poppy is not a character worth exploring.

The film’s blueprint may be envisioned as a series of concentric circles representing the teaching and the taught; Poppy and longtime roommate and best friend Zoe are both elementary school teachers with plenty of creativity and love to share with their students, but after school and on weekends, these teachers become willing and eager students, signing up for various dance classes (as well as the aforementioned trampoline workshop), traveling and visiting relatives who attempt to drill some sense of responsibility into them. The extracurricular activity most central to the story, however, is Poppy’s driving lessons, the basic function of which is to pit two volatile characters, polar opposites in many ways, against each other in a confined space for maximum character revelation.

Scott (the pathologically brilliant Eddie Marsan), Poppy’s driving instructor, is her only rival in terms of oddball behavior, and his car, like the cab in All or Nothing, becomes a cloistered confessional wherein we discover his rampant xenophobia, bewildering religious views and repressed sexuality. In scene after heated scene, where multiple Chinese fire drills signify the mutability of instructor/student roles, we root for Poppy, who has the disarming effect of a human key going around unlocking people, hoping she will be able to mollify the perpetually anxious Scott.

Between lessons, Poppy, an aimless wanderer in her spare time, encounters a schizophrenic man living under a bridge in a scene that hearkens back to a thread in Career Girls (when the girls discover that a mentally ill wanderer in the neighborhood is, in fact, an old friend from university). Consistent with her indiscriminate nature, Poppy settles in to chat with the man, and across her expressive face flicker traces of sympathy, fear, bemusement and genuine concern, creating a “there but for the grace of God” moment. Like the wayward student in Career Girls, this man may be the other side of Poppy’s coin, as if, with her occasional lack of good judgment, childlike naiveté and compulsive garrulousness, she were treading a fine line between eccentric and crazy.

The film’s climax hinges on Scott’s red-faced, spat-out diatribe, full of observations that, in the hands of a lesser actor, would have come off as irrational and invalid as a rapist claiming, “She was asking for it, wearing that short skirt.” Instead, when Scott berates Poppy for her flirtatious mannerisms and overbearing friendliness in what should have been a professional situation, we realize that he is not entirely wrong; Poppy’s quality of “being too nice” (as Zoe calls it) is a double-edged sword. Part of the responsibility that comes with the territory of adulthood must be to gauge and parcel out affections with caution. We know exactly what Scott means when he asks Poppy, “Was that your boyfriend before?’ referring to her sudden professionalism in the car once she has found an appropriate suitor. When Poppy doesn’t answer, her comprehension is clear; one reading of the situation (certainly Scott’s reading) is that she was using Scott, a sad, misanthropic little man who never would have stood any real chance with her, to boost her own ego. Poppy may appear as a friend to everyone, completely stripped of prejudices and social filters, but perhaps her people-pleasing persona is a mask in and of itself.

Some critics have deemed Happy-Go-Lucky the closest Mike Leigh will ever get to a “feel good” movie. Strangely, though, most of his films could technically be categorized as such, since his characters typically achieve some degree of redemption and spiritual growth by film’s end. It’s just that, until now, the murkiness of the moral and psychological quagmire from which his characters eventually emerge has been so dark that it tends to overpower the hopeful ending. Though Poppy’s journey has sinister passages, her cheerful, positive approach to every situation helps sustain an upbeat vibe throughout the film. If there can exist a “feel good” movie about miscommunication, self-doubt and irreconcilable schisms in worldviews, then Happy-Go-Lucky is that movie.




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