Character-driven comedy

  • Written and directed by Mike Leigh

There’s no excuse for Happy-Go-Lucky working as well as it does, and not only because the term “Mike Leigh comedy” sounds like an oxymoron. This movie has no real plot, no significant conflict, and not an overwhelming supply of laughs.

What it has is a bubbly, upbeat, outgoing, and extremely happy protagonist named Poppy (Sally Hawkins in one of the best performances of the year). But unlike many bubbly, upbeat, outgoing, and extremely happy people in real life, she’s not self-absorbed. She cares about others and is usually (but not always) sensitive to their needs. She’s an elementary school teacher and, as far as we can tell, a very good one. She’s had the same roommate for ten years and they’re very close. She’s a loving person as well as a happy one.

And nothing truly horrible happens to her in the course of the entire film. Her bike is stolen and she laughs it off. She hurts her back, but gets over it quickly (she’s only 30). She identifies a violent problem child in her class, but she brings him to the attention of her boss (who’s also a friend), and everything is handled competently and professionally.

The worst problem in her life, at least in the few weeks that the film covers, is her prickly relationship (strictly business) with the professional instructor she hires to teach her how to drive. The poor man (Eddie Marsan) is wound so tight he explodes at anything, and is about as poor a match for Poppy as one is likely to find. Leigh is too realistic a storyteller to turn this into a romantic relationship, but he’s quite willing to make it a funny one. He also uses it to show us how Poppy deals with someone so entirely at odds with her world view.

Not that he’s the only person whom Poppy irritates. Her upbeat spirit annoys as many people as it helps, including members of her family. But these people don’t go off the deep end, perhaps because they’re not in a small car with her while trying to teach her a life-preserving skill.

Leigh’s films have always observed everyday life. This one is about observing the everyday life of a very happy person, and one whose happy outlook on life never really gets put to a test. Poppy is a very pleasant person to spend two hours with, but a better film would have really challenged her optimistic outlook–perhaps with a problem she couldn’t escape by changing driving instructors.

Happy-To-Lucky screened at the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival.

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