Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Irritating Optimism of “Happy-Go-Lucky”

Mike Leigh’s film Happy-Go-Lucky had been sitting in my Netflix cue ever since it came out last year. I wasn’t really in a hurry to see it. While Sally Hawkins was getting rave reviews for her lead performance as Poppy, the movie itself was not exactly getting a huge amount of praise from critics.

When I watched it, I was skeptical at first. For the first 20 minutes or so I thought I was being subjected to the same trippy magical realism of Amelie, a film that’s not on my all-time favorites list. Right away I could see why others would find the main character so annoying. But after watching the entire film, it left an impression on me, and I’ve been thinking about it off and on ever since.

The movie is a character study that follows Poppy around for a few weeks of her life. No doubt, this character has the most upbeat personality featured on a movie screen since musicals were Hollywood’s bread and butter. Poppy’s sunny nature shines brightest in comparison with other characters in the film, like Scott (Eddie Marsan), a driving instructor Poppy takes lessons from when her bicycle is stolen. Scott is very serious about his job and a bunch of other things. His humorlessness and grim determination are much closer to “real life” than Poppy’s upbeat optimism.

Scott’s not-Poppy outlook is also seen in Poppy’s younger sister, whose house Poppy visits one day. The sister has everything a young woman is supposed to strive for – a husband, a house with a yard, and a baby on the way. Yet all she can talk about is how Poppy is 30 years old, single, and has no aspirations to get her own husband, house, or child. Through their reactions to her, the basic question Scott and Poppy’s sister direct at Poppy is the same one that is probably on the mind of people watching the movie - What exactly are you so damn happy about?

Thinking about the movie, I couldn’t help but recall one of my classmates from junior high school. I don’t remember her name, and I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe her personality then, but I do now: Total Bitch. Long before Paris Hilton had perfected her arrogant, middle-finger-to-the-world skank routine, this little girl had it down cold. For some reason she was the rudest, most negative jerk I’ve even been forced to be around, before or since. She was the kind of person who, if she were walking down the hall and someone was blocking her way, would exclaim “EXCUSE YOU!” before pushing her way past. Even the smallest interactions were cause for her to spit out some snide comment or unnecessary put-down.

Even when her father died during the school year and we were all instructed to be extra nice to her, she never let up. She was a pretty girl from a well-off family, she got good grades, and even had friends in a cliquey, “Heathers” kind of way. I had no idea what was going on in her life outside of school, but from what I could tell, she had no reason to casually crap all over people the way she did. It’s always dicey to compare movie characters to real people, but I couldn’t help contrasting Poppy’s general outlook to hers. Maybe it’s in the brain wiring, maybe it’s the choices each of us makes every day. All I know is this girl was walking through life armored with negativity, so why can’t other people be prepared to be positive?

Happy-Go-Lucky did not get big distribution in the US. Reviews on praised the film, but the praise is usually given with caveats. Reviewers’ main problem is that the story and main character just aren’t believable. How could someone be that upbeat all the time, and how could other people possibly stand being around someone like that? The negative reviews fall into two categories: There are the people who could not stand the lead character on a personal level (one reviewer’s comment - “I kept hoping Miss Happy-Go-Lucky would get cancer.”). The other camp feels the story itself is inconsequential, basically because nothing happens in the film, at least not in the normal sense of movie storytelling.

I can understand all kinds of reasons for not liking a film, but I wonder why this movie generated these kinds of negative reactions on this side of the pond? I think a big reason is that this movie is completely out of step with the current American zeitgeist. With war, unemployment, economic turmoil, global pandemics, and everything else going on, who has a reason to crack a random smile, much less laugh and joke all the time? In America, there’s plenty of reasons to be pissed off all the time, with the 24/7 chatter from talk-radio, basic cable and the Internet adding plenty of fuel to the fire.

In the “real world,” being nice makes you a sucker, being satisfied with what you have makes you a slacker, and being too open and friendly makes you a weirdo. It seems to me that nowadays the only socially acceptable way to express yourself is with anger or anger’s uglier, less talented step-sister sarcasm. Take a look at TV talk shows or the comments section of just about any Web site to see how much bile makes up public discourse, especially if the commentators get to remain anonymous.

In the USA, happiness is something external, a state of being that has to be earned by struggle, sacrifice, and suffering. Alternately, happiness is a commodity like money, gold or oil. There are only a few ways to get it, and there is only so much of it to go around. Corporations spend billions of dollars every year to convince consumers of this.

Conversely, happiness without work, pain, or dollars spent is meaningless and unworthy. Therefore only certain people “deserve” to be happy in the socially accepted manner (e.g. men through their jobs, women through marriage, children, and shopping). One must have a REASON to be happy, and that reason must be bought and paid for before it can be correctly experienced. Otherwise the happy person is little more than a naïve fool.

American media reinforces this idea. Two of the most powerful unspoken rules of American movies and television are that beautiful people can’t be smart (unless they’re also evil) and happy people can’t be serious or taken seriously. In modern TV sitcoms especially, the character that’s always smiling and chipper is usually the dumbest and/or the least aware of the bunch. From Chrissy Snow to Woody Boyd to Phoebe Buffet, the list of smiling, off-in-their-own-world, shiny happy people is pretty long, and they’re usually relegated to the status of comic reliefs. Happiness isn’t so much a chosen state as it is evidence of a mental defect.

Poppy’s not like these characters. She’s not an airhead or a Pollyanna, and she’s not irresponsible. She’s just a positive person who likes to have fun. Her happiness comes from the inside - it’s not the end result of ordeals and smart purchases, but the natural way she engages with the world. I feel that this kind of emotional language is foreign to American culture. It’s like someone walking into a room and declaring “I’m a hero!” without the scars and blood stains to prove it.

Poppy’s happiness in a sense is irrelevant because there’s no evidence that she’s done anything to earn it, and it’s easy to dismiss or resent the emotional free lunch she’s clearly enjoying.

The “problem” with Leigh’s film is that his protagonist starts off having already achieved the goal that many other movies and TV shows set up as the reason for their characters to exist in the first place. Also, not only is Poppy happy, she’s content. She has a job as a primary school teacher that she likes. She spends her free time clubbing with her gal-pal/flat mate and drinking in bars with her friends. She has no ambition or grand plans to be much else, and she’s perfectly fine with it.

This state of affairs just doesn’t mesh with general American tastes or the American story which is about righting wrongs, getting things you don’t have, and doing whatever it takes to “be somebody.” Being a part of society means a constant consciousness of what you don’t have, which leads to a never-ending journey of wanting, striving and suffering over your own or somebody else’s plight.

Poppy doesn’t seem to be putting much effort into this kind of life, at least not in the way many Americans would consider worthy of watching in a theater. She’s not striving to defeat unseen enemies, she doesn’t spend hours on end bitching about the news, and she’s not cowering in fear waiting for someone to save her. Her world is small, but she is completely engaged in it, even at the expense of everlasting national and international issues.

(I think it’s also worth noting that Poppy doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who spends a lot of time watching TV, Twittering, or arguing with strangers on Web message boards. It also doesn’t hurt that she lives in a country where she doesn’t have to worry about medical insurance, unemployment, guns, or never-ending wars in far-off lands.)

Despite this lack of career and personal momentum, and for all her supposed head-in-the-clouds irrelevance, I got the impression that the characters around Poppy need her much more than she needs them, if only to have someone around to lighten the grind of daily life. In the end I felt like Happy-Go-Lucky is not a story about a dizzy bird skipping ass-backwards through life. If anything, the real story in this movie is about a person who has to guard her happiness from the world around her, how someone with a naturally cheery disposition maintains it in the face of so much negative energy (from family, the job, or high-strung driving teachers) floating around like germs during flu season.

At the start of the movie I wondered how we realistic, down-to-earth people could possibly put up with somebody like Poppy. At the end I wondered how someone like Poppy puts up with us.

1 comment:

  1. Hi..
    Enjoy your blog...

    I just rented Happy-Go-Lucky and I'm not in complete agreement with your analysis.

    The movie begins with Poppy continuously in the middle of the frame as she rides her bicycle. Right then I felt the movie tipped its hand...Poppy is in the center of her own world.

    A lot has been said about the character's inner happiness and comfort with herself and her situation...
    We follow this character in rather disconnected scenes of her life.
    However, I thought the shocking climax, in which her driving instructor explodes in rage and frustration, was Mike Leigh's actual thesis for the film. It's the only significant sustained monolog in the film....and it points up Poppy's insensitivity in the end.....

    Its difficlut to fathom why any sensitive woman, a teacher no less, would lack empathy for her own teacher and show him so little cooperation; or, sensing his difficulty, even danger, would not get out of the situation earlier. And what of the scene with the deranged man at night? Poppy wasn't exhibiting a happy regard for the world...she was behaving recklessly.... As such, the final scene in the rowboat is disappointing because it appears that Poppy has not been changed by the experiences....

    I think American audiences were mostly turned off by the improvisational technique employed by Mike Leigh. In "Secrets and Lies", this style often allowed scenes to build up to emotionally surprising intensity. The material here is too lightweight, and scenes run on much too long, well beyond their intended point.

    There is a good film to be made about a natural optimist who must protect her happiness from the encroaching sadness and cruelty of the world..but I'm afraid this wasn't it, for me.