'Happy-Go-Lucky' is a film of extremes

Is too much happiness a bad thing? Maybe

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Poppy, right, played by Sally Hawkins, tries to bring a smile to her gloomy driving instructor, played by Eddie Marsan, in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky."

Mike Leigh bores in close - too close - in latest film

By Anne Kirby

During times of woe such as the economic downturn we are facing, Americans take to the movies for comfort. The key ingredients of escapism, laughter and bigger-than-life romance or blockbuster adventure pictures served up by the big screen act as great stress-busters.

So who could resist a film titled "Happy-Go-Lucky"?

Billed as one of British director Mike Leigh's funnier films - you may remember his 1991 production of "Life Is Sweet" where family and food helped to make a difficult time better -

"Happy-Go-Lucky" is described as a funny story whose main character is deemed worth the price of a ticket

It sounded great on paper.

But film communicates differently than words.   Once in front of the big screen, I was not happy.

My first reaction was physical, something like pain, the result of being overwhelmed with Leigh's extreme use of close-ups. Depicting actress Sally Hawkins, in her first starring role  as a young English primary school teacher named Poppy, in multiple close-ups was risky.

And though I give Hawkins credit for taking on such an intense and demanding role as the film's happiest person at all times - a task that takes energy and concentration for any actress - to appreciate the intimacy of close-ups, one must like the character.

Poppy's youthful, over-the-top happiness combined with her ditzy façade made me edgy.

Poppy is happy-go-lucky but to such an extreme that I was at odds with her character.  And small as this may sound, I admit that Poppy's youthful, over-the-top happiness combined with her ditzy façade made me edgy.

Poppy irritated me.

Yet I was not sure if this came from my inexperience with British humor or my dislike of  the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's overdependence on close-ups that depicted bleakness, despair and comedy as he explored the human condition in his 1960's and 1970's films.

Either you like Poppy or you don't. There is no middle ground.

For me, the latter extreme rang true. I had to fight off my flight reaction to avoid getting up and leaving the theater.

No relief from happiness or close-ups

I longed for a long shot that would bring relief from the shots that revealed Poppy foisting her overly ambitious happiness onto strangers, followed by indiscreet utterances under her tongue when her cheery remarks were met with silence and rejection. I needed psychological space to separate myself from the overbearing Poppy, her in-my-face pasty white skin, supercilious laughter and Rambo-like happiness. I needed distance to gain perspective.

I am a fairly upbeat person. How could I possibly find fault with a film about happiness?

As luck and Leigh's direction would have it, no reprieve was in store from the extremities of Poppy's happiness and Leigh's unnerving close-ups.

When Poppy and her stuck-somewhere-between-adolescence-and-womanhood generation of friends venture out for a night in the burroughs of London, making happy and drinking themselves silly, I began to feel a sense of hopelessness about where the film was going. Perhaps I was not of the right age group to appreciate it?

But when Poppy, her roommate Zoe and girlfriends return to Zoe and Poppy's flat, the shots close in on an undersized apartment with overstuffed rooms filled with couches and fluffy beds suffocating me to the point where I could  practically taste the film's cellulose.

There was not enough space in this film. I squirmed in my seat when Poppy went to get a cup of tea to nurture her friends' hangovers from a kitchen that seemed wedged in between the bathtub and the toilet.

sally325_325      Poppy rolls through London as film opens.

I began seeking emotional escape: I digressed wondering where are the boyfriends, boyfriends who could add depth, if not space? What is wrong with these women? Do they date or do they always hang around with each other acting happy and wearing clothes that look as if they were purchased at a Salvation Army shop when a tornado hit the dressing rooms?  Apparently the boyfriends never heard that the girls escaped with their lives.

Finally a long shot --  like a breath of fresh air -- emerged.  I felt hopeful and energized.

I watched Poppy - from a distance - walking home, when she became diverted by the mindless rantings of a homeless man that were coming out of a dark alleyway.

Most people would have turned and run, but not Poppy. Naively she confronts the man, alone and without hope of rescue were something to go wrong.

This man is on the edge, but so is Poppy for taking such a foolish risk.  And I expected the next scene to be set either in a hospital emergency room or a psychiatrist's office.

Has Poppy's happiness taken on manic proportions? Why put her own life at risk like this?

Just about every character in the film is obsessed in one way or another. Poppy's driving instructor - the type you meet in America when you are in high school - is another wounded character who Poppy happily takes on.

In all fairness and to the film's credit, the tension of the above scene was juxtaposed by a very funny scene in which Poppy and an apparently normal friend - her school principal - attend a flamenco class full of hopefuls. Finally Leigh delivers an hilariously comic scene about an intense Spanish flamenco teacher who, in her vociferous delivery of hard-hitting flamenco steps, is extreme, yet fun to watch.

Just about every character in the film is obsessed in one way or another. Poppy's driving instructor - the type you meet in America when you are in high school - is another wounded character who Poppy happily takes on.

The instructor, played by Eddie Marsan, belittles her, makes fun of her high-heeled boots, and acts out his oversized negativity with a superior attitude manifest in his Tibetan-like mantra that he uses for checking mirrors.  He is twisted and he relentlessly drills the mantra into Poppy's head like a punishment.

Eventually Poppy touches something in him and he responds by stalking her. 

Enter the prince who meets and falls for Poppy.  Ironically he comes in the form of a handsome social worker who sees something behind the mask of Poppy's happiness.

But all is not perfect. And like all mortals, Poppy must come to grips with her own life drama before she gets the prince.

Her chance arises when she discovers her driving teacher is in lust with her during a very dangerous driving episode, when his jealousy and rage boil over after seeing Poppy and her new boyfriend kiss.

Poppy flees the car threatening to call the police.  But true to character, she goes back over to the car, stands outside, and calmly speaks with the crestfallen, wounded instructor.

For better or worse, Poppy had gotten under a very tightly wound person's skin, and we see the unintended consequences of her relentlessly sunny disposition.

But the result is comforting and Poppy is, if not as happy, very lucky and I a bit more realistic. She and her Prince whose kiss has saved her - from herself - fall in love and the ending is sanely happy.

All ends well and gratefully I got the distance I needed to perceive the intended message.  While leaving the theater, I asked myself this question, "Is too much happiness a bad thing?"    

Should you decide to discover the answer to this question yourself, go and see the film but take my advice and sit in a back row!

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Hawkins, left, and Leigh on the set of "Happy-Go-Lucky," which has been described as one of the British director's sunnier films.

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