Happy Is as Happy Does
The backlash is already beginning: you can feel it circulating among the cinemarati online, nattering on message boards and blogs. The London schoolteacher Poppy is the most annoying movie character ever, they’re saying. Wait till the awards season really ramps up and some major critic group names Sally Hawkins the best actress of 2008 — then the audible howling will begin. And when Hawkins gets an Oscar nomination? The fannish gloves will come off.
Now, I cannot deny that a certain portion of my brain recognizes that Poppy’s relentless cheeriness will grate on some people. I would have thought I’d be one of them, seeing as how I’m such a dedicated misanthrope with little tolerance for fools and clowns. Instead, I find myself marvelling at her detractors: how can anyone possibly hate this character… this woman? For as much as I want to knee-jerk decry her unflagging optimism as “unbelievable,” I simply can’t. Maybe Poppy is ridiculous. Maybe, in real life, someone like her would inevitably become the victim of a strangling at the hands of a friend, family member, or fed-up passerby. But I want to believe in someone like her. I want to believe life can be approached from such an uncompromisingly joyous perspective.
Poppy is not a fool, which makes her easier to take, and Happy-Go-Lucky, a slice of her merry life, is one of the most thoroughly delightful movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s Beverly Hills Chihuahua for deep people: it’s escapist and airy and cotton-candy fluffy, but it’s not dumb, and it’s not dismissable. (Also: Everything I said here about the rarity of movies about women as human beings? It applies here too.) Director Mike Leigh deploys his usual filmmaking method — in which his actors work from a character biographies and a loose plot to semi-improvise their scenes — to create a movie that bursts with spontaneous verve. And if you can let yourself get caught up in Poppy’s world, it is a rapturous experience.
Sally Hawkins — who had been starting to make a splash in arthouse films like Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake and Woody Allen’s recent Cassandra’s Dream — arrives as a major talent here, carrying the entire film on her shoulders, which is the only way this could have worked. As we bounce along, looking over Poppy’s shoulder as she entertains her grade-school students as much as she educates them, as she chums around with her longtime best friend and roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), we get so caught up in her joie de vivre that it’s a long while before we start to wonder how Sally will get her comeuppance. For surely that must be in the offing, right? No one — at least not in the world of The Movies — can remain so happy for so long. Danger seems to lurk everywhere, like in the driving instructor she starts to take lessons from as the film opens. Eddie Marsan’s (Hancock, Miami Vice) Scott is a volatile, angry man driven — heh — to even greater heights of sputtering rage by Poppy’s refusal to take anything seriously. “You celebrate chaos!” he screams at her, as if this were a bad thing.
I won’t tell you where the situation with Scott goes, but it’s probably not anywhere you’d expect. He is, though, the perfect would-be foil for Poppy… were she foilable. Everything makes her laugh, even pain, and it seems she is constitutionally incapable of not trying to spread her joy. And the longer she endures in that — not that she’s “enduring”; she’s not faking it and not putting it on — the more real it starts to become for us. Poppy is the ultimate expression of the dictum that life is what you make it: you can be happy, or you can be angry, but it’s not going to change a damn thing, except how much fun you have along the way. And particularly considering the dismal state of the world today, that’s a wonderful possibility to consider as you’re walking out of the theater.