Happy-Go-Lucky (review)

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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.

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Fri, Oct 17, 2008 4:36pm

What, is she like a speaking Amélie, most annoying movie character of 2001 (Phantom Menace was 1999)?

Sun, Oct 19, 2008 11:34am


Scott P
Scott P
Wed, Nov 05, 2008 8:19pm

Amelie is one of my all-time favorite movies & characters.

So BITE ME, Josh!!!

By the way, while Amelie was an uplifting movie, the character of Amelie was a lonely & often sad person searching for happiness. In other words, if you saw Amelie, read MA’s review & then thought about it for a second, then you would have known it was a stupid question.

Fri, Nov 07, 2008 7:00pm

Not cool, Scott. Behave like a grownup, or don’t bother commenting.

Tue, Nov 18, 2008 6:57am

The joy of spending two hours with Poppy (and the film as a whole) is the realization that first impressions count for nothing. Much like the guy in the book store at the beginning I’d shy away from such a forceful personality if she were to cross my path, but by the end of the film I was ready to be her best friend.

Tonio Kruger
Wed, Jul 01, 2009 10:41am

I won’t tell you where the situation with Scott goes, but it’s probably not anywhere you’d expect.


I suppose it says something about the number of real-life horror stories I’ve heard that I expected it.

What I didn’t expect–and what I found to be a pleasant surprise–was the way the movie’s script resisted the temptation to punish the protagonist for her optimism. It has become so fashionable for certain moviemakers to give their films unhappy endings in order to “teach” the dummies in the movie audience a lesson about how bad life can be that I was glad to see the writer take an opposite tack.

Punishing Poppy would have sent the message that she was ultimately responsible for Scott’s inability to control his feelings about her. She wasn’t. I’m glad that the writer saw this and I wished more movies followed this film’s example.