Appellate Judge Tom Becker is cock-eyed for optimists.
Happy-Go-Lucky is a deceptively simple film about a woman who is happy with her life. She's not living in a fool's paradise, she doesn't have the rug pulled out from under her, and she doesn't end up in extraordinary circumstances. She changes very little over the course of the film.
"Happy-Go-Lucky" is also a deceptive title. It suggests someone who's carefree and fun to be around, but who's simple and shallow. Poppy, the heroine of this Mike Leigh gem, is certainly fun to be around, but she's far from simple or shallow. As played by Sally Hawkins, she's a fully realized, complex human being who happens to see her glass as half full rather than half empty.
Leigh is known for working with his actors to develop his films, rather than just handing them finished scripts. These are character-driven works, and often Leigh's plots are merely venues for us to discover people more interesting than they first appear and to watch them interact.
Even by Leigh's standards, Happy-Go-Lucky is plot-light. It's a few days in the life of Poppy. She parties with friends, and she takes driving lessons with a slightly unhinged instructor (Eddie Marsan, 21 Grams). She's a teacher of young children. She enjoys her work and is apparently good at it. She meets a nice guy; she spends time with her sisters. Rather than getting a story about Poppy, we get the story of Poppy. We get no moralizing, no tacked-on easy-to-read insights. There's no explanation for Poppy's personality; she simply is.
Leigh and Hawkins don't toss the character at us all at once; they let us discover her, naturally, the way you would a new acquaintance. There are times she's endearing and times she's exasperating. The film nicely balances "fun" scenes with serious sequences, including a haunting interlude between Poppy and a stranger.
The role is a showcase for Hawkins, and she doesn't disappoint. Hawkins gives one of the best performances of 2008 and hands down the most charming. It would have been easy to have played Poppy as a kook or a twit, or a phony and insufferably "wacky" sort, but Hawkins doesn't fall into those traps. She's as familiar as she is unpredictable. It's an exceptional performance, and Hawkins deserves all the honors she received—as well as some that she didn't.
Hawkins gets great support from Marsan, in a tricky performance as a loathsome guy who's not altogether unlikable and whose inability to read Poppy results in some of the film's most memorable—and disturbing—moments. Also terrific is Alexis Zegerman as Poppy's best friend and fellow teacher, Zoe. She and Hawkins share a chemistry that makes them wholly believable as long-time "best girlfriends," and it's refreshing to see a film in which a female friendship is drawn so lovingly and unsensationally.
As you'd expect from a recent film, the tech on this disc is fine—good looking picture, surround audio that does justice to Gary Yershon's excellent score. Miramax gives us two featurettes. "Happy-in-Character" is around half an hour of the actor's talking about their characters and generally about the experience of making the film and working with Mike Leigh. "Behind the Wheel of Happy-Go-Lucky" is a shorter piece that focuses on the driving-instruction sequences, which take up a good chunk of the running time.
Best of all is Mike Leigh's outstanding commentary track. Leigh is unself-consciously proud of his work without coming across as obnoxious or boastful, and he provides the kind of analysis usually given by film historians for classic films. He doesn't spoil the experience by over intellectualizing or explaining too much, but points out nuances you might miss in a single viewing, and sometimes gives his reasoning behind what's on screen. This adds greatly to the enjoyment of the film. Leigh's style is engaging and conversational, like a favorite professor conducting a class on a prized topic, often punctuating the commentary with questions—"What is she going to find here?" "Do you think you'd react like that?" This is one of the best director commentaries I've heard, entertaining and enlightening.
With its offbeat charm and strong performances, Happy-Go-Lucky is a happy surprise. Its episodic nature might not appeal to everyone, but at the very least, it's worth a rental—and don't miss Leigh's commentary.
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