Friday, January 9, 2009

Holly Up on Poppy

Our movie today has been out for awhile but I only just got to see it recently because movie studios don't seem to want my money. That's the only explanation I can think of for their brain-dead film release strategies. But I won't let executive numbskullery color my opinion of ...

Happy-Go-Lucky (d. Mike Leigh)

Poppy is happy. Real happy. She's the kind of happy that can't get three words into a conversation without a quip or a pun. And she's blissfully amused by her own wittiness.

And quite frankly, that ought to be reason enough to hate her.

The fact that I didn't hate her as she glided through Mike Leigh's latest, Happy-Go-Lucky, is testament to the skill of the director. Partly. He does surround Poppy with what has become the Mike Leigh trademark mix of verite London settings, working-class characters and overlapping, overheard, Altman-esque dialogue. And all that helps to ground his lighter-than-air lead.

But it is mainly the small miracle of a performance by Sally Hawkins that turns Poppy's incessant good cheer into a lovable quirk, rather than a cause for justifiable homicide. One misstep and this might have been two hours of rusty nails on a jagged blackboard.

Poppy teaches primary school in London and is given to lessons that consist of making bird heads out of paper bags and jumping about while wearing them. She takes trampoline class and flamenco dance class. She's given to the occasional impromptu staring contest. It's all a bit of a larf.

She is so pleasant and accepting that when her bike is stolen, she looks around perplexedly and muses that she didn't even have the chance to say goodbye to it. What would be infuriating to most is just another opportunity for her.

She decides to take driving lessons for the first time at the age of 30 (I think that's how old she is; she hints that she might be older) and that decision brings her face to face with her polar opposite, Scott the Driving Instructor who is as bitter and tightly wound as Poppy is open and free. Scott does not appreciate Poppy's carefree style. Or her clothing. Or her humor. At one point, Scott says, "Bear with me." Poppy responds, "Is there? Where's he at?" Scott does not laugh.

The key to Sally Hawkins performance is the intelligence she brings to Poppy's joy. It would be so simple to take a character as perky as this and assume that she must be an idiot. But Poppy is not an idiot.

She is very good at her job. When she is confronted by a serious situation at school involving a playground bully, her approach is firm and compassionate.

She is thoroughly self aware. When her unhappy sister tells her that she can't be as happy as she seems, Poppy incisively enumerates one reason after another why she appreciates her life, the world, and her place in it.

And she is nobody's fool. When things with Scott turn less than friendly, she shows that she can handle herself in a dangerous situation.

Scott is played by another Mike Leigh veteran, Eddie Marsan who, like Hawkins, appeared in the director's previous film, Vera Drake. His byplay with Hawkins is the movie's comic centerpiece and he is magnificently funny and all too real in his anger, his racism, and his inevitable hostile attraction for his most exasperating student.

But this is Hawkins' show all the way. Like my favorite female performance from 2007, Amy Adams in Enchanted, Hawkins puts Poppy's happiness over by simply committing to it completely, without the tiniest hint of irony or duplicity. It's the most rudimentary weapon in an actor's arsenal and one of the hardest to properly wield. Hawkins deploys it masterfully.

"You can't make everybody happy," one of Poppy's friends cautions her.

"No harm trying," she shrugs.

None at all.

4 stars.

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