Cast: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman
Director: Mike Leigh
You either love Poppy or you don’t.
Count me among the don’t. The blissfully clueless teacher at the center of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky puts a smile on everyone’s face, but not this one viewer, at least.
Poppy (Sally Hawkins) has a talent for perpetual sunshine, until the day that her beloved bicycle gets stolen and she’s forced to take driving lessons around the streets of London. Even then, not much can put a dent into her elastic cheerfulness.
The film centers mostly on Poppy’s relationship with her driving coach, an unstable, bigoted, conspiracy-minded jerk (Eddie Marsan) who rants about bad drivers and security cameras as she handles the wheel. He takes it upon himself to teach her lessons of the real world while he teaches her left turns. Poppy meets his cynicism with cartoonish optimism.
There is a long cinematic heritage of happy idiots. (Although in fairness, Poppy isn’t stupid. Just annoying and not particularly awake.) Forrest Gump comes to mind. A more accurate comparison would be Peter Sellers’ simpleton Chauncey Gardiner in Hal Ashby’s Being There.
In Chauncey, Ashby found a wry, accidental commentator with the secret wisdom of happiness, an antidote to the self-important political culture that he wanders into. In a film starring two actors approaching their deaths (Sellers and Melvyn Douglas), Ashby’s fable reflects on the supreme, simple joy of happiness.
It seems like Leigh is going for something along those lines. But I could never quite fathom his purpose. Does Leigh admire Poppy’s ability to always look on the bright side, despite life’s pitfalls? Or is he satirizing her as the ultimate representative of a culture that’s too happy to stop and think? Is the joke on her or us? Either way, it seems a long way to go for a short point. And one made previously with superior execution.
If by acting we mean embodying the character on the page, Hawkins does fine. Her one-stop happy machine comes across. But it’s almost completely one note. The role doesn’t allow for much range. At the climax, Poppy does finally confront a nasty situation with the driver, forcing a moment of angst. But it feels like a contrived ending to a contrived dichotomy.
But there are a number of unsung amusing moments – most deliciously flamenco lessons from a Spanish instructor(Karina Hernandez) in the middle of a messy breakup, a woman with a grudge against marmalade. Wonderful energy. If only it had more.