Monday, May 25, 2009

470 - Play It Again #16 - Happy-Go-Lucky

Without Nick Roos, I might not be here. Were it not for his decision to hire me as the film critic for the Northern Iowan back in 2006, it's extremely doubtful that I'd have seen countless movies for free and have earned a few thousand dollars in the process. But my debt to him goes much further than the monetary kind: as a masterful and enthusiastic editor, Nick often worked closely with me to fine-tune my material and aid my development as a writer. Capable of providing invaluable insight into writing of any kind at a seemingly cursory glance, it's safe to say that I've learned more about writing from him than I have any of my other schoolastic peers. It's only fitting that he now teaches writing at the University of Northern Iowa, where he loves every minute of his work and receives very high and well-deserved marks on A man of great intellectual curisotiy, he can engage in brilliantly entertaining discussions on topics ranging from Christianity to Nancy Pelosi to the Cubs.

Nick's selection is "Happy-Go-Lucky," Mike Leigh's 2008 comedy about an impossibly cheery woman's giddy interactions with a depressing world.

For me to watch a movie more than once, I have to either like the film so much it makes me want to share it with people I care about, or it has to make me think I’ll get something from subsequent viewings I may have missed the first. “Happy-Go-Lucky” fills both criteria, so despite the fact that I only first saw it in March, I’ve seen it four or five times.

Working in the film’s favor is its tone, wit, and brevity: 90 minutes. The tone ranges from cartoonishly upbeat--thanks to scenes of partying, flirting, teaching and dancing flamenco--to gravely observational, tackling issues such as child abuse, homelessness, heartbreak and love in its myriad forms.

From the fist shot, viewers are trying to figure out the main character, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), as they watch her go from smiling cyclist to potentially lesbian drunk, from older sister to best friend, from bird-costume designer to primary school teacher, from colleague to trampoline student, from friend to flamenco student, from driving student to chiropractic patient, from concerned mentor to giggling lover, from stalkee to philosopher.

Questions abound while Poppy plays her countless roles. Is she crazy or witty? Engaging or annoying? Homosexual, heterosexual, or biosexual? In a film filled with moments that make all our characters appear vulnerable, the scenes that take place in the tiny car used for driving lessons stand out, crackling with humor, intensity and awkward interaction between Poppy and Scott, her misanthropic driving instructor. These engaging actors (Hawkins and Eddie Marsan) threaten to dominate the film with their combined power, but the stories that float in and around are deft and intriguing, and they have to be to keep the viewer from counting the minutes until we’re back in the little car driving on the left side of the road.

Writer/Director Mike Leigh received an Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay, and though he didn’t win, he easily could/should have. Not a word is wasted in this slice of an optimist’s struggle through pessimistic life—no scene is too short or too long—and every character is given the respect due to a human being. There are no bad guys, no good guys—only life. Everyone is perfect; everyone is flawed; everyone is lucky.

John Williams once said the biggest mistake composers make is thinking they have their audience’s interest amid the constant stream of distractions life presents. This is a film that never takes its audience for granted. Viewers are pushed to make decisions about how to view characters, which then steers their response to future scenes.

In the absence of bad guys following borrowed storylines to achieve blatant themery, “Happy-Go-Lucky” achieves the ultimate function of art within a successful culture: the power to reveal as much about its audience as its characters and creator. - Nick Roos

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