' Cinema Romantico: Happy Go Lucky

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Happy Go Lucky

There is a certain type of character familiar in movies. The person nearly glows with happiness. They are kind to a fault, endlessly talkative in the nicest of ways, relentlessly outgoing, positively beaming with earnestness, yet as the movie progresses you see this person is using so much happiness to shroud a sadness or some sort of painful memory. (Think: Amy Adams in "Junebug".) But Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the heroine of Mike Leigh's new film, does not match this stereotype. Oh, she's happy. And giddy. And talkative. But she's not trying to pull over anything on anyone. She says she loves her life, and you believe it.

The first scenes lay the groundwork for what will follow. Poppy rides her bike into town and stops in a bookstore. She tries to make chit-chat with the shop's lone employee. He is not receptive. She scans the shelves, all the while trying to get this unsmiling guy to open up. "Are you having a bad day?" she asks. "No," he replies, simply. He is almost stunned by a person who can be in such a genuinely good mood, and she wants everyone to do their best to feel like her.

Leigh's film does not employ a conventional arc so much as it offers recurring vignettes. Poppy hangs out with her roommate and sister (both decidedly not as all-the-time bubbly as she). She is a grade-school teacher and has to deal with a young boy who starts bullying classmates. She attends a flamenco dancing class with a friend. And, most importantly, after her bike is stolen (note her reaction to said event and then think about how you would react in a similar circumstance) she is forced to learn how to drive and takes lessons from an instructor (Eddie Marsan) who, of course, is Poppy's polar opposite. He is a paranoid, eternally irritated man, the sort who when he yells transforms into a tsunami of spit and constantly has to remind her "I'm a very good instructor" probably because he needs to remind himself. Her scenes with him in the car are like watching the Happy Police in the interrogation room trying to break down the Bitter Suspect's wall of armor.

If this film had been made in America there would have been gigantic cue cards in the story, meaning Poppy would have begun the movie as a Happy Person only to have Something Bad occur in the middle which causes her to become a Sad Person only to Rebound in the third act and become a Happy Person once again. Alas, this is an English film and Leigh does not play by the same rules. There is a transformation to Poppy that finds the perfect middle ground and, yes, maybe you can see it coming but I don't attend movies to play the guess-ahead-game. I let them absorb me. I was absorbed.

I could have done without the final scene. It does not fundamentally change the outcome and therefore cannot ruin the movie itself but it says out loud what the short scene preluding it did solely through Hawkins' marvelous body language. She is earning a lot of acclaim for this role (I remember noting to myself that she was the best thing in Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream" in a supporting role as Colin Farrell's significant other) and it is deserved. Nearly every line of dialogue she speaks is followed with some sort of winning mixture of a laugh/chuckle/snort. She's so pleased every hour of every day she just can't help herself.

She's why the uneccesary final scene didn't bother me too much. Her happy go lucky interrogation wore me down. I confess.

Recently it seems that earnestness has almost become a negative trait in our society. The word painful often precedes the word earnestness in sentences. I cannot even begin to understand this sentiment. What, would we prefer people to be fake? I just wish anyone who uses the phrase "painfully earnest" could spend a few hours in the car with Poppy.

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