Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Albert Camus famously wrote that the most important philosophical question, the one that must be answered before any others can even be asked, is whether or not to commit suicide. It’s a question that wouldn’t occur to Poppy, the playful, tittering center of Mike Leigh’s terrific new movie, Happy-Go-Lucky.

Happiness is something that philosophers and artists alike largely ignore as a subject of study. Torment, tumult, grief, unrequited love, and boredom are more common inspiration. And the ledger shows that this is a good thing. On the one side, you have Anna Karenina, Mozart’s Requiem, David’s The Death of Marat, hell, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. On the other, you have “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

To examine the causes of suffering, and how we react to them, tends to be both more interesting and more edifying than portraying how we surf along on times of joy. But sustained happiness is another thing, and it would be fascinating -- maybe even helpful -- to see it depicted more often.

Sally Hawkins is brilliant as Poppy, a schoolteacher in London who shares a flat with a longtime friend, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman). As the title suggests, she’s exceedingly spirited. She enjoys making faces, and childish noises, and generally deflecting uncalled-for somberness with acts of slapstick silliness. (At her most irritating, she recalls a nicer David Brent -- making wisecracks or bad puns when other adults in the room are trying to go about the business of being an adult.)

Leigh is notorious for building his careful scripts from long periods of improvisation. (I’m woefully unfamiliar with his movies, but that’s going to end immediately -- I’ve moved him up to the first four slots on my Netflix queue.) The benefits of this process are evident throughout, but never more than in a series of scenes involving Poppy and a driving instructor. (After her bike is stolen, the 30-year-old Poppy decides to finally give cars a try.) As that instructor, Scott, Eddie Marsan is phenomenal. Scott is his student's opposite -- a clenched, bitter, judgmental person -- and yet their (hilarious) scenes together have much more than just the humor of conflict to them. By the end, you -- or I, at least -- feel genuine sympathy for Scott, partly because Poppy does. One of the movie’s many achievements is how you learn to see the world through her eyes. Happy-Go-Lucky -- or rather, Poppy herself -- is not a fable, and that makes all the difference. She isn’t a Forrest Gump-like character, so naive and innocent that she becomes a blank or, worse, a symbol.

In fact, Poppy is really an absurdist, and in this she might have found common ground with Camus after all. She just embraces the absurd more easily than most of us could possibly imagine. The same way we all smile at some bad twist of fate from time to time, to keep from going crazy, Poppy does all the time. And this quality is most helpful when the chips are down, which they sometimes are for her -- she’s not floating through a dreamy, frictionless world. When she is victimized or in pain, she’s at her most unflappable. Her bike is stolen off a rack full of bikes, and she shakes her head at the odds; a doctor wrenches a disk in her back into place, and she giggles through her grimace. She allows the world’s pains to sneak up and surprise her anew every time, allows them to seem ridiculous, laughing at them the way you might laugh at getting a flat tire pulling out of your driveway. And if you’ve known the relief of those rare moments, the giddiness in being able to shrug something off even when it’s trouble, then you know we have a lot to learn from someone like Poppy.


Anonymous cindyfey said...

Sounds like a sister performance to the great one of Alison Steadman in Leigh's Life in Sweet. Steadman plays a mom whose compulsive giggles are her defense vs. sinking in sad family drama. Put that on your Netflix list - along with Naked and High Hopes, just so you don't get the impression Leigh is less inspired by torment.

2:15 PM  

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