Friday, September 30, 2011

Happy-Go-Lucky

Happy-Go-Lucky
last seen online via Hulu
9.29.11

Happy-Go-Lucky is a movie I never really gave a fair chance until last night. It first came out when I was still living in Columbus, and even though I like Mike Leigh movies in general, the premise - a look at the life of a perpetually-perky young woman and her eternal optimism - turned me off. Of course, it turned out to be a critical smash, and netted star Sally Hawkins a ton of awards (yet somehow she missed out on an Oscar nomination, which is mind-boggling to me because she seemed like a lock). 

So when it came out on DVD, I figured, okay, I guess I'll take a look at it. So I did - and the first half hour or so confirmed my expectations. Hawkins' character Poppy struck me as irritating beyond belief. I thought she was either on a permanent high or simply a ditz. Maybe it's simply my New York cynicism at work, but she struck me as the kind of person I'd go out of my way to avoid. I turned the movie off, unfinished, and forgot about it.

Then the other day I saw it was on Hulu and I thought well, enough time has passed; why not give this movie another chance. It is Mike Leigh, after all. So I did - and I have to admit, I'm glad I did, because I definitely see it in a different light - for more than one reason. But I'll get to that later.


I remember discussing HGL with Max after the trailer came out. I think Max kind of identified with Poppy. He, like her, is an eternal optimist. He's had, in some respects, a tumultuous life, but he's been able to overcome his personal obstacles without a great deal of bitterness or angst. He also has an extremely generous nature, typified by his agreeing to let me room with him (despite the fact that his place was barely big enough for one person, never mind two). In a lot of ways, I envied him for that.

HGL seemed like it was up his alley, but I remember arguing that a character like Poppy seemed like an unrealistic exaggeration. He disagreed. (Neither of us had seen anything other than the trailer yet.) In this, as with most things we disagreed on, our fundamental worldviews made it difficult for us to find common ground. This was relatively minor compared to our epic debates about, say, art, but we got along in plenty of other ways. Anyway, Max saw the movie without me, needless to say.

So now, three years later and having seen HGL in its entirety, I find I have to slightly revise my opinion of it. I see now that Poppy does indeed have depth and compassion, not to mention a remarkable perceptivity with people. That said, I still couldn't imagine myself being anything more than acquaintances with her if I knew her in real life. Her perpetual giddiness is still off-putting. On the surface, she's difficult to take seriously - and if it weren't for the fact that she's the focus of this movie, I probably would not be inclined to want to dig beneath that surface. 


So all due credit must go to Leigh and Hawkins for giving Poppy dimension. Leigh's unusual method of collaborating with his cast to craft a story has been well-documented, so I don't doubt that there's something of Hawkins in Poppy, but Leigh was able to bring it out and shape it into a character-driven narrative that made me think about her beyond the surface, and that's what makes him such a fascinating and individual director.

There's another aspect to HGL that stood out to me, though, as I re-watched it, and I'm afraid it means I have to perch upon my soapbox once again. The wonderful opening credits of HGL show Poppy happily bike riding through the streets of London. As someone who has come to appreciate biking a great deal, this is a sight to see. In a culture that not only celebrates, but fetishizes cars, it's inspiring to see a sequence within a movie that clearly shows how much fun biking can be, especially for a woman, double especially for a woman not dressed like a hardcore biking athlete. Too often, people think that biking is only for the Lance Armstrongs of the world and not for regular people. (Compare this to the trailer for the upcoming movie Premium Rush, which sells the stereotype of the daredevil scofflaw biker.)

Poppy gets her bike stolen (should've locked it) and decides she wants to learn how to drive instead. Why? We never find out. Does she have a history of getting her bike stolen? We see her taking a bus to work before deciding to drive; does she not like public transportation? Never explained. I understand that if she doesn't take driving lessons, she never gets to meet Scott, who's a huge part of the story, but still, it disappoints me greatly that she never rides a bike again after the opening credits...



...especially since London has become a great place to bike! In recent years, London has taken extraordinary steps to not only improve biking conditions, but to calm street traffic in general, and in HGL one can clearly see bikers everywhere in the backgrounds. If Poppy had gotten her bike stolen repeatedly and was sick and tired of it, I could understand her wanting to drive instead, but her reason to switch is never articulated, and that bothered me.

As for the character of Scott, Poppy's driving instructor, well, he's clearly a dick, no question about it. However, he's absolutely right in chastising Poppy for not taking her lessons seriously (at first, anyway). The whole point behind London's "20's Plenty For Us" campaign is to slow down car traffic to make the streets safer, because - obvious as it sounds - the slower cars drive, the less the possibility of a serious injury to pedestrians and bikers. Not enough people are aware of that, especially here in America.

Anyway, like I said, I'm glad I watched HGL again. I definitely see it much differently than when I first saw it.

6 comments:

  1. I love Happy Go Lucky. Made me love Sally Hawkins. She's really good in Made in Dagenham (kind of like a super-grown up Poppy).

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  2. The only other thing I've seen her in so far is 'Never Let Me Go.' She is a good actress - d she hasn't become typecast after playing Poppy, which is also good.

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  3. I haven't seen this one but I've heard both sides of the opinion, and it seems like it's quite polarizing. My good friend actually hated it but I'm still curious to see it and because of your review, I might rent it after all. I first saw Hawkins in the BBC version of Persuasion (she was ok but the adaptation could use some improvement) and then in 'Never Let Me Go.' This sounds like a very different role than the ones I've seen her play.

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  4. I think in the end, it's the craft of the movie that appeals to me more - like I said, the way Leigh and Hawkins created this character and the way they built a life for her - but then, this is typical of every Leigh movie, and he does it so well one has to ultimately step back and appreciate it for what it is.

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  5. Hawkins is great but this film, oddly, was one of my biggest disappointments of its particular year. I recall finding it hugely depressing, which is odd because many find it quite the opposite.

    While it's been awhile, and I can no longer point to precisely what aggravated me so much about the whole bit, I do remember thinking that it reached a point where Poppy became less of an optimist and more of an...idiot. As her relationship with Scott progressed, and after that scene where she wanders under that desolate bridge (am i remembering this right?), she began to depress me tremendously. What began as looking on the upside quickly turned into this sort of weird lack of understanding, almost like watching a mentally ill person. She repeatedly put herself in really poor situations, which may be a statement about the world on Leigh's part, but unfortunately also paints her in a sort of pathetic light.

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  6. There was indeed a scene in which Poppy tries to comfort a homeless man under a bridge, which didn't seem connected to the rest of the story.

    Depressing? I don't think I'd go quite that far. Like I said, she does come across to me as a happy idiot on the surface, but I think the film makes clear that she chooses optimism even when it's hard. As rotten as Scott treats her, in the end she's still able to reach out to him when his inner pain spills out, and I think that should count for something. Far from a lack of understanding, I think she understands the world better than one would think.

    That said, I agree that she does tend to put herself into poor situations. She's no saint by any means.

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