November 6, 2008

REVIEW: Happy-Go-Lucky (A)

What's the difference between an optimist and a pessimist - besides "attitude"? Perspective developed through experience? Patterns of thinking learned early in life? Enjoying the rain instead of cursing it? Surely I don't know, but I'm always fascinated and, frankly, frustrated at how easily people toss the terms around.

Does that make me a pessimist? I've been labeled as much by different people at different times in my life, and I've brushed it off with some ease, often calling forth every pessimist's favorite defense: "I'm a realist." Whatever that means.

Either way, I know what (or rather, who) I'm not: Poppy Cross, the subject and saint of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, which aside from perhaps pointing to Leigh's need for cathartic release after 2005's Vera Drake, also serves as one of the most uplifting and confounding films of the year. Those with a better handle on Leigh's filmography than me (I saw it as part of the Walker's recent Mike Leigh retrospective) have noted that it maintains Leigh's commitment to character while at the same time completely separates itself from his typically dire, dour stories. Seems reasonable, but all I know for sure is that it's been a while since I've related to so many characters in the same film.

There's Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), Poppy's loyal roommate of a decade who shares her glass three-quarters-full outlook on life but doesn't show it with nearly as much giddiness, likely because she's much better than Poppy at picking up on the nuances of other people's emotions. There's Tim (Samuel Roukin), Poppy's latecoming love interest who appears to be too caught up in the newness of love to understand Poppy's true emotional state; it's all joking and laughing and kissy flirting, but does he realize there may not be much beyond that? There's Helen (Caroline Martin), Poppy's older, pregnant sister, who chastises Poppy for her carefree lifestyle while at the same admitting that she's unhappy with her own marriage and life. There's Scott (Eddie Marsan), Poppy's woeful driving instructor, whose outlook on life is pessimistic at best and homicidal at worst.

And then, finally, there's Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an effusive sprite who believes her mission in life is to change the world one giggly grin at a time - she's the life of the party and the sun that breaks through the gray London sky. Although this bright disposition works wonders in her job as a kindergarten teacher (at times she seems like one of the students), it hampers her relationships with adults in her daily life, namely those I just mentioned but also her other friends, colleagues, and even strangers. Moreover, it's clear that she is unable to access some of her own emotions: joining a friend at a flamenco class, Poppy nervously laughs and stomps about, oblivious to the pain and passion that's supposed to be driving her movements. Sally Hawkins runs wild in this performance, and the early Oscar buzz she's received is deserving, perhaps only because of the amount of energy she is able to consistently channel through Poppy.

Speaking of which - while there are aspects of Poppy's character that seem true to life, she continuously toes the line of caricature (giggling upon discovering her bike stolen: "I didn't even get to say goodbye"), which threatens to prevent us from taking much of Happy-Go-Lucky seriously, or at least makes it difficult for us to understand Poppy's emotional potential. It's not that Mike Leigh doesn't have a handle on the emotions he's illustrating - not at all, just that some of the transitions are so jarring you find yourself rubbing your sore facial muscles as you leave the theater. Laughing, cringing, frowning, smiling, smirking, worrying - it's hard to know how we're supposed to be feeling and why (i.e., the scene with a homeless man and most of the interactions with Scott). If I had to direct any criticism in any area, it might be toward this emotional rollercoaster ride.

But at the same time, maybe that's the genius of Happy-Go-Lucky: Leigh allows us to connect with so many different characters at so many different times. Sometimes I felt like Scott, manically irritated by Poppy's inability to have any kind of serious conversation; sometimes I felt like Zoe, appreciative of the positive influence Poppy has on people's lives; and sometimes I felt like Poppy, confused as to why everyone is so uptight and unable to experience the joyful moments in life. All of these feelings were valid, and none of them felt forced upon me.

Poppy Cross, stuck on smiling...

As most "realists" would tell you, people like Poppy are due for a rude awakening. It's fitting that she has a small one in Happy-Go-Lucky, and it's refreshing when the resolution is both positive and realistic.
I don't feel any more like Poppy now than I did when I saw it nearly a month ago, but I've since caught myself occasionally reflecting on my attitude in a particular situation. While there is terrific acting (especially by Marsan), brilliantly funny dialogue, and effortlessly relatable characters, it may be for that reason alone - that self-reflecting significance, that Happy-Go-Lucky should be considered a must-see.

Writing - 10
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 47/50= 94% = A


  1. I'm considered a pessimist as well, Daniel. I just say I'm a realist. They say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to ...

    A fine review of a film I must see, if it ever gets anywhere near here.

  2. Wow, I guess I had a really different take on Poppy than you did. I didn't find her unable to access her feelings and didn't think her romance was doomed because she can't go deep. I think she can, very much so, but it's hard to find people who share her world view. People like her and Tim are the idealists in the world, feeling they can make a difference to people who have a lot of barriers to their happiness and success, such as the abused child, the low-income children at school, the mentally ill man (I had problems with that scene for other reasons, but not because I didn't think Poppy was capable of it). She tried to get through to Scott, but not everyone is able to lighten up or share her worldview.

    I never felt like she was a saint - clearly there can be some harm in trying to cheer people up with the kind of superficial approach she has to take in casual encounters. Scott was the prime example of that. As for the flamenco class, honestly, don't you think you're expecting too much from someone who's never done it before? She gets better over time, but don't look for miracles.

    I didn't feel like I was on an emotional rollercoaster. What I like about Mike Leigh is that he doesn't try to manipulate my emotions, tell me what I should be feeling at any given moment like Steven Spielberg does to annoyingly to me. Leigh lets events unfold so that I can have honest reactions to the deeply realized characters his process allows him to bring to life. I felt that the film allowed me to get to know Poppy gradually so that by the end, I quite liked her, didn't find her laugh annoying, and realized that she's flawed but basically someone who's comfortable in her own skin.

  3. Haha, like I said, Rick - it's the go-to "excuse" to call ourselves realists, but even that term has been hijacked in recent years. Thanks for your comment!

    Marilyn, I actually don't think we're very far off from our thoughts on Poppy. Call it my "realism" coloring my impression of her. I'll admit it's unfair to say that Poppy couldn't access her own emotions, but I did feel like it was awkward for her to do so. When encountered with the homeless man, in the post-dance class drink with her friend, and even in her first date with Tim, I saw her almost like a child, venturing into new emotional territory without really knowing how to switch gears.

    It wasn't that I had an issue with her dancing skills, but it was clear in her first class, as she was looking around for someone else to laugh with, that she had no idea how to tap into the emotions exhibited in flamenco dancing. Yes, she did improve over time.

    Speaking of which, now I'm wondering if it isn't a little far-fetched that the short period that we see of Poppy's life is the only time that she's been faced with so much emotional pushback (the homeless man, her students, her sister, Scott). Anyway, that's probably an unfair criticism.

    "What I like about Mike Leigh is that he doesn't try to manipulate my emotions".

    Well, though I was a little distracted at the emotional extremes from one minute to the next, I do admit "all of these feelings were valid, and none of them felt forced upon me."

    Anyway, I think we both really liked this film, even if looked at it from different angles. I mean, how many romantic comedies (if this even is one) can be discussed so deeply?

    Thanks for your thoughts. I had to avoid your review until I finished this, but I've left some thoughts there as well.

  4. I agree with you that it's hard to to know what we're supposed to be feeling any why. But instead of that pushing me towards introspection, as it seems to have pushed you, I found it pushing me towards indifference. The film became an exercise in checking my watch in between the driving lessons. Watching Poppy go through life and the motions felt tedious, except when she was grating against Marsden's character - that was brilliant stuff and I wish Leigh had given us more of it.

    But ultimately, I didn't find Poppy intriguing enough to figure out why she was doing the things she was doing.

    Take the scene with the homeless man, for example. I imagine there are a lot of layers there that could be picked apart and analyzed and have term papers written on, but I just kept thinking, "Really? Why should I find this important? Oh, I don't. Ok, when's the next driving scene?"

  5. Speaking of which, now I'm wondering if it isn't a little far-fetched that the short period that we see of Poppy's life is the only time that she's been faced with so much emotional pushback (the homeless man, her students, her sister, Scott). Anyway, that's probably an unfair criticism.

    I doubt that this is really true. It seems like her sister is always like this, judging from Suzy's reaction to going to her home. The homeless man wasn't pushing back, IMO; they did connect somewhere along the line, though I do rather wish Poppy had let him be--I really didn't understand how she found herself in that area at night, nor did I really appreciate her probing. That to me was her worst characteristic; probing with children often is helpful, but with adults, you're playing with fire and intruding on someone's privacy. If a person wants his depths plumbed, he should have the choice of going to a shrink and working cooperatively on the endeavor, not just have someone stick their hand in his head and see what comes out.

  6. It's funny, Evan. I just saw your review up this morning as well. We both saw this weeks ago and never got around to reviewing it. I still need to read yours.

    You've identified an interesting difference in our perspective, and I can see why you may have found this less than engaging. Certainly the Poppy/Scott moments were the strongest, and while the homeless man encounter was in one way important, I don't know if needed to last as long as it did, or if we would have longed for it had not been there.

    As you say, Marilyn, it bordered on patronizing and/or inappropriate, and I imagine it made more than a few people squirm in their seats. Did Leigh mention anything about that scene at your screening?

  7. Yes. A colleague asked him about it at the Q&A and said it reminded him of a scene in Naked (which I have not seen). Leigh bristled at this - apparently he hates to have his films compared to each other and things they are all very distinct. Kind of a blind spot for him.

    What he said about that scene was that it was meant to be the heart of the film, to show Poppy's essential nature, her need to reach out to people. He said that the man had obviously had an emotional life or love at one time, that communication was possible. He contrasted this with Scott, who was emotionally stunted and had not had a loving relationship.

    Condescending, not really to me. Simply an invasion of privacy. Some doors are better left unopened (see Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse for a literal reading on the extremes of loneliness), and I objected to Poppy crossing that line without really getting mutual consent. I'm a privacy nut, as you know.

  8. I haven't seen Naked, either (I should have during the retrospective), but I've seen it pop up in a number of reviews for this, so Leigh should have expected people would try to make a connection.

    That's a very interesting insight about the history of the homeless man vs. Scott. I wonder how either of theirs relates to Poppy's history, especially we know her family more than anyone else's?

    Nothing at all wrong with privacy. I'm one of the few people who doesn't write under a pseudonym, but I respect those who do, and those who don't divulge personal information in general on their blogs. I think that's part of the reason why I related to Scott as Poppy was grilling him during the driving lessons.

  9. Yep, Poppy is indeed due for a rude awakening. I agree with one of the commenters here "Marilyn" who rightly states that others don't share her worldview. (By the way Marilyn, you wrote some fantastic stuff there. Kudos to you!) But of course so did Dan, in awarding this film a lofty rating which I wholly concur with. Great script, some engaging humor and of course that infectious lead performances, which I know has turn off a number of people. But the reviews like yours have been mostly exemplary.

  10. Thanks so much, Sam. I enjoy the discussions Daniel is able to host here. So many great film fans show up here.

  11. Yeah, so I loved this film and I have said a hell of a lot about it at a lot of places, but I have yet to find someone who conveyed thoughts very similar to my own, but you have and I am glad! Nice review buddy, the film is definitely a must-see.

  12. Thanks, Nick. I know I was way behind in reading everyone's, but your review was positively one of the best.

    Sam, it surprises me that so many people are turned off by Poppy. Even I didn't, and I generally get annoyed by people who are shoving sunshine down my throat. I don't know, I guess I felt protected from Poppy by the screen.

    Thanks to both you and Marilyn for the kind words. I appreciate the discussion more than anyone.

    Secrets and Lies was on TV recently - that's one of Leigh's that I'd really like to see. Time, time, time...

  13. Nick Plowman said something about Poppy being kind of a mirror and that reflects the audience. The way people respond to Poppy says more about you than it says about Poppy I think.

    I kind of fell in love with her. I think it was the scene in the hospital when she was in extreme pain and it made her laugh.

    My biggest complaint with her was that she simply talked too much...she had this running stream of consciousness dialogue that would get annoying in real life.

    I liked this movie a lot, but it defeated my attempt to review it. It's not the first and it won't be the last, but I'm glad to see so many skilled people giving it its due.

  14. Well, I'm certainly with you and Rick when it comes to our outlooks on life, but I'm with Evan as it related to this flick: clock-watching was a constant, though the driving scenes were indeed good, and I'll be pulling for a Supporting nod for Marsden.

    That said, if I knew Poppy in real life, I would simultaneously pity her and want to punch her in the face. She was ALWAYS "on" - Zoe even mentioned something along the lines of this, calling her on her "bullshit." Poppy seemed incapable of ever giving anyone a straight answer. She would drive me nuts.

    I found the film to be an exercise in nothingness. I'm fine with a lack of plot if the nothingness is about something, but I guess the dots just weren't connecting for me.

  15. Thanks, Craig, but you've given fair reviews to movies that lot of people haven't seen, so it all evens out. We L.A. outsiders have to fight for the release scraps that make their way to us...

    Funny point about her talking so much. It didn't bother me that much, but yeah, give it a rest already. That chiropractor scene was kind of weird. I mean I think it was supposed to show us that she laughs threw her pain, but something about it was awkward for me.

    Well if nothing else we'll unite in our praise for Marsden, Evan. Has he been a FF-UN yet? Feels like it.

    I suppose you could said "Seinfeld" was about nothingness - maybe these are about "nothing" except for our interactions with each other. I mean you're right, there really is no plot here. But what's "nothingness about something"?

  16. Funny, I was thinking about Seinfeld as I was watching it. It seemed more of a strung-together-patch-of-vignettes than a cohesive film - so many scenes that just felt unnecessary to any semblance of a plot (the chiropractor, the trip to her sister's), though I suppose they just nailed home the point more and more about how different and special she was. As if we didn't get that in the first 10 minutes.

    Marsden has not, though he should be. I know I've seen him in more (and think he's wildly odd looking), but all I can recall for sure is V for Vendetta and The Prestige and/or The Illusionist (can't recall which one).

    Was I the only one wondering what the f was up with his teeth here? I'm sure I don't remember him having darkly colored fangs before...

    "Nothingness about something" could be where those seemingly meaningless and unrelated short scenes all add up to something that the viewer gets. Maybe this had it (the Poppy=mirror could be one take), but it felt like empty calories to me.

  17. The homeless guy scene was weird to me, but the chiropractor scene seemed ok.

  18. You are most welcome Marilyn, your stuff is ever-insightful.

    Craig I can certainly relate to your statement that a great film sometimes "defeats your attempts to review it." I am having that very problem myself with SYNCOTECHE, NEW YORK, which you issued a great review for.

    I have send my MIME lists around, but apparently I need to send it to Fletch of Blog Cabins who is here on these threads. What shall I do Fletch?

    Yes, Poppy did talk too much, but I guess that was all part of her effervescent charm, which defined her essence, and as was discussed earlier by Marilyn and others, was part of her worldview.

    Leigh's greatest films? Well, for me in oder:

    1 Vera Drak2
    2 Life is Sweet
    3. Secrets and Lies
    4. Happy-Go-Lucky
    5. High Hopes

    Of course a few others push close.

    Again I want to thank Dan for his stellar review and for this especially invigorating comment thread, which trumps most.

  19. I agree, Fletch, that it seemed like some of the scenes were from a check-off list that would need to show her in different circumstances or something.

    I'm on the way out the door but last time I looked up Marsden I was blown away by the number of recent movies he's done - many of which are majors.

    Thanks again, Sam. Your ranking of Secrets and Lies makes it even more of a must-see for me now.


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