May 21, 2013
Written by Jonathan Schumann
Thursday, 30 October 2008 15:38
For several years, Jonathan Schumann contributed film reviews as part of the “Take Two” father-and-sons movie reviewer team. This week, his father Mark, the “Reel Dad,” steps aside to bring Jonathan back to the column for a guest appearance.
British filmmaker Mike Leigh has never shied from portraying the gloomy side of everyday life. Secrets and Lies, his sensational, Oscar-nominated drama, explored deception and familial conflict in working class London and his Vera Drake portrayed the destruction of a struggling family at the hands of moral absolutism. So considerable surprise greets his latest, Happy-Go-Lucky, an amusing, ceaselessly funny comedy that follows a perpetually positive and cheery London schoolteacher.
We’ve all met people like Poppy (Sally Hawkins, of Leigh’s Career Girls). You know the type, cheerful no matter the circumstances, and almost giddy in the face of adversity. In life, that kind of eternal optimism can be annoying (to put it mildly), but on screen Leigh and Hawkins create Poppy as one of the most engaging comic heroines of recent memory. When her bike gets stolen, she shrugs it off and says, “That’s a shame, we were just getting to know each other.” She takes a sprained back in stride. She handles class bullies with candor. She even deftly handles a sardonic, misanthropic driving instructor (Eddie Marsan in a richly textured performance). As we see Poppy handle these increasingly intense and potentially inflammatory encounters, we realize that there’s a lot we could learn from her sunny outlook.
In addition to making Happy-Go-Lucky a winning character study, Leigh and Hawkins have also made one of the most consistently funny movies in recent memory. Hawkins’ relentlessly manic, madcap comic persona is the source of many laughs, and the film’s improvisational style resembles Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Because Leigh doesn’t work from a traditional script — he creates the story and then works with his actors to create scenes, character traits, and dialogue — every scene pops with lively, unpredictable energy.
The film rests squarely on Hawkins’ shoulders, and it’s a testament to her considerable talent and grace that Poppy’s unflappable perkiness never grates. She manages to find the humanity and vulnerability beneath Poppy’s overt enthusiasm, and constructs and authentic, endearing portrait. I can only imagine what Hollywood could have done with this story — we’d probably get Renee Zellweger, she of the squinty eyes and irritating pluck. In her hands, Poppy could easily have turned into a shrill caricature.
In this, one of the most uneven and uneventful years for film in quite a while, Happy-Go-Lucky is a high point. Along with Gus van Sant’s Paranoid Park, Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, it’s further proof that the most interesting films being made right now are occurring outside of the studio system.
Looking for something to rent? Here is a suggestion inspired by Happy-Go-Lucky:
Video Pick: Secrets and Lies
Happy-Go-Lucky left me wanting more of Leigh’s unique worldview. This film, which was an art house darling upon its release in 1996, stars Brenda Blethyn as a downtrodden woman who must deal with her dysfunctional family when the daughter she put up for adoption years before resurfaces. Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste both received Oscar nominations for their raw, unsparing portrayals of women in crisis.
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