Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Film Review: Happy Go Lucky (2008)

Far be it from me, the owner of several volumes each of The Family Guy, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and even Jackass, to criticize those who seek pure escapist entertainment from their movies. There's no shame in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill; there's no shame in Defending Your Life; there's no shame in Used Cars. They're all escapist pieces designed not to stimulate one's intellect or morals as much as to salve the throbbing abrasions to intellect and morals that life seems so often to deliver outside of the theater. Wanting to escape inside such a movie is nothing to hang one's head about, shy from admitting, or seek consciously to overcome. The trouble begins when there isn't quite a movie into which to escape.

Such is the case with Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky, starring Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan. Mind you, I wish that it weren't: With such unimpeachable past successes as Secrets & Lies, Topsy Turvy, and above all Vera Drake, Mike Leigh has earned his chops as a writer/director for whom I want only the best of success, and from whom I've come to expect rather a lot. Too bad for both of us, then, that Happy Go Lucky falls several crucial elements short of being an actual motion picture, by even the most broad and permissive standards of the term. The premise is encouraging enough on paper--"Poppy" is a youngish and terminally optimistic London city girl in a dead-end job and no relationship beyond the unflagging support of a friend and a sister, when she decides to snap out of her doldrums by taking-up driving lessons from "Scott," a contract instructor whose cranky disposition, repressed upbringing and near-fanatical religious beliefs have alienated him from the prospect of true happiness. So far, so good.

Trouble is, Mr. Leigh would seem to have found himself bored by the somewhat formulaic corner into which he'd written himself with those beginnings, and as such the film he created veers inexplicably and without justification into a series of vignettes that are neither funny nor interrelated to even the tiniest possible degree. We see Poppy exercising on a trampoline and hurting her back, visiting the chiropractor for an adjustment, taking flamenco lessons from a volatile and possibly demented Spaniard, visiting the seaside with her mates, and any number of profoundly discursive moments that might in other movies have helped us to understand her character--except that in those other movies there'd be rather a lot more to understand, and besides which the vignettes themselves would contribute something, anything, to the advancement of the plot. Even if we didn't find out what that something was until later. Instead we get things like, "Do penguins emigrate?" "What, you mean like, do they spend their winters on the Costa Del Sol?"

The driving scenes themselves are, in far more typical Mike Leigh fashion, pitch-perfect: Poppy belittling Scott's insistence on taking himself and his profession way too seriously; Scott desperately straining to keep his composure in the presence of a pupil who has no intention of taking his expertise to heart. "If you do not listen to me," Scott says, in an illustrative moment while the two of them are parked by the side of a quiet residential street, "you will get into a terrible crash, and you will burn up, and you will die." Too bad for the rest of us, then, that a film about an optimistic woman taking driving lessons from a cranky teacher doesn't have the good sense to accept itself for what it is and stay in the bleeping car.

Instead Leigh makes time to "weave" a b-story about one of Poppy's elementary-school students finding himself at the mercy of an abusive stepfather--a thread that seems destined to culminate with Poppy striking out through an edgy neighborhood at night to investigate the boy's home life. Ah, the potential! Will she land in over her head at the stepfather's flat, and desperately in need of a coincidentally passing-by driving instructor to burst in and save the day? Will she find herself cornered and mildly assaulted by that bizarre homeless man with whom she's just become entangled in strange anti-conversation? Er... No, actually. Instead all that happens is that she natters away in increasingly saccharine platitudes to the shifty vagrant, who (like the rest of us) eventually gives up on her and walks away muttering. Turns out she wasn't even walking through the night for reasons having anything to do with the boy in her class--or if she was, we are left none the wiser: The instant the homeless man leaves her, there's a sharp cutaway to a daylight scene with no apparent explanation of what she was doing in such an awkward and potentially dangerous situation. For all we know she could've been out for milk.

The issue with the student then disappears entirely from the consciousness of both Poppy and the audience, while the former takes a holiday in Brighton and the latter begin air-conditioning the theater with the collective gesture of flicking their wrists to see how much of this palaver is actually left to sit through. Only at the end of the movie, when Poppy meets (and abruptly sleeps with) an external counselor brought in to help the boy, does the B-story resurface with so much as a mention. And pardon me, but if this character is so worthy of our admiration, isn't it a bit odd that, in the face of a possible child-abuse case happening right under her nose, she could fuck-off down to Brighton for twenty minutes of the picture and not utter a single syllable of gloominess about the poor lad's predicament? Is she terminally optimistic in a way we're supposed to imagine for ourselves, in the end--or is she just profoundly self-absorbed and vapid? Or is Mike Leigh trying to suggest that this is what we should imagine for ourselves?

At least Mr. Leigh has the good sense to retrieve the formula he should've embraced throughout when the critical moment comes: a climactic confrontation between the still-innocent Poppy and her suddenly jilted-feeling and (we've just learned) stalker of a driving instructor. As only Mike Leigh can have such things, it's a long, difficult scene without a whiff of flinch in it anywhere, and for those six-and-a-half minutes at least, he holds every seat in the theater as if by a puppet string. People stop chewing popcorn; they stop whispering to the person next to them. They hold their breath.

And if the message of the film is that sunny people must work so much harder than the rest of us to protect themselves from the infectious influence of other people's envy-soaked gloom, then surely Leigh has accomplished the delivery of that message with this, the scene that makes the balance of this disaggregated mess worth the ticket price. And yet even here, at what should have been the redemptive moment in which Mike Leigh proves that he is still Mike Leigh, the film treats us instead to a sharp cutaway to a rowboat, in which Poppy is speaking to one of her chums as if essentially nothing has just happened. It is almost as if Leigh was intentionally setting-out to make a picture so feel-good that it was incoherent, and only reminded himself of this objective after lapsing for a few minutes into far more typical greatness.

I have a confession to make: It's been several weeks since I saw this film in the theater. I'd been planning to write a review that said something of the, "when you're in a mood not to work quite so hard for your entertainment" variety--suggesting that the picture is harmless enough and shouldn't actually offend even the most purist and committed movie snobs among us. Then I'd planned to draw an analogy between the typical rental customer and Poppy, on the one hand, and between myself and Scott, on the other: We could stay chipper and enjoy the ride, as Poppy would have it, or we could sit grimly cross-armed and fervant and self-alienating and miss all the fun like Scott. But you know something? There are far too many other choices of "feel-good" movie out there, choices that actually work, for me to pull that device out of the hat, now. A feel-good movie that doesn't hurt anyone doesn't also have to fail to make sense. And I for one am surprised that Mr. Leigh, of all people, would have failed so spectacularly to figure that out.

The Key Grip gives this picture two bald heads. If someone else has rented it, you won't lose any time off the back of your life to watch it with them. Otherwise, give it a miss.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florid


isuyankee said...

Is there shame in "Dude, Where's My Car?"

Dave O'Gorman said...

I haven't seen it, but I will say that there *is* a fair amount of shame in "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle."

By the way, have you seen the sequel to "Dude, Where's My Car?" It's called, "Oh, Wait a Minute: There it Is."

Sully said...

"Happy-Go-Lucky" is not one of my favorite movies, but I do disagree with your review. Though Leigh's direction may seem to jump aimlessly or jarringly at times, the whole is redeemed for me by two things.

First, it makes the point that you have to work at being happy (though not in a joyless way!). As one of my favorite quotes has it, "adversity is inevitable, [but] misery is optional." Often, when things go wrong, what seems easiest is to drift from one depressing train of thought to another instead of snapping oneself out of it by interspersing some physical activity or focusing on someone else's more critical needs.

Second, the Leigh film did not resort to the old, cliched, false "solution" of having Poppy throw over her sensual and potentially loving relationship with the counselor for "redeeming" the negative and creepy Scott. As a woman who's seen female characters forced to follow that self-destructive path time and time again, that was good enough for me to give "Happy-Go-Lucky" more thumbs up than down. As was the inclusion of the strong, interesting roommate, and a bunch of scenes that rang very true to life (like the visit by Poppy and her more ditzy sister to the uptight one).

Anyway, that's my two cents' worth.