Monday, November 24, 2008
Irritatingly True: Happy-Go-Lucky
Your Honor, fellow members of the critical blogosphere, movie lovers everywhere: It is with great frustration and a hint of shame that I announce that I am recusing myself from the case of Objectivity v Happy-Go-Lucky. This is difficult for me. As a proud member of the cinema-loving jury, I had hoped to fulfill my critical duty by writing a thoughtful review about Mike Leigh’s film, which is enchanting critics around the country to the tune of an 84 score on Metacritic. But after much soul-searching, I have determined it would be unethical to proceed. See, ladies and gentlemen, I have a previous relationship with one of the defendants, the uber-upbeat Poppy. And despite repeated attempts to convince myself otherwise, there’s no way I can give Happy-Go-Lucky a fair trial.
Oh, yes, Your Honor. I realize that Poppy is only a fictional character, played with aplomb by Sally Hawkins. I’m not insane. I don’t mean to imply that I’m a character in Leigh’s film. I simply contend that I have known Poppy before, under different names and guises. I have worked with Poppy. I have met her at parties. I went to school with Poppy. In fact, I went to school with several Poppys – more on that later. And it’s because of my Poppy-filled past that I recognized her right away in Leigh’s film. Within five minutes, I’d say. And as soon as I realized who Poppy was, the totality of Leigh’s vision and Hawkins’ performance was rendered moot, because – gosh, there’s no other way to say this – I absolutely loath Poppy.
What’s wrong with her? She lacks self-awareness. She’s ditzy. She’s obnoxious. She’s disrespectful. She turns everything into a joke. She’s smart but behaves stupidly, which is worse than being stupid. She takes almost nothing seriously. She masks her self-doubt with awkward jokes, like SNL Weekend Update correspondent Judy “Just Kidding” Grimes. She’s always “on.” She avoids reality. She’s faux optimistic in the sense that she lacks an ability for pessimism, which means she sees the proverbial half-full glass as entirely full because she’s blind to the empty half. She’s annoying. She’s immature. And she lacks substance.
Poppy irritates me to no end. I think I handle it OK. I don’t go into saliva-spewing fits of rage like Scott the driving instructor, played with chilling conviction by Eddie Marsan. But if I spot a Poppy, I walk the other way. Check that: I run. Which is why spending nearly two full hours with Poppy made watching this film absolutely excruciating. Was that the point? Perhaps. I realize that Leigh is playing with audience preconceptions here. He knows that we’ve been raised on cynical fare where no good deed goes unpunished. He knows that screenwriting gurus like Syd Field suggest that dramatic architecture is built on the pillars of conflict and change. He knows that unremittingly cheerful people like Poppy populate the planet and yet are almost criminally overlooked by dramatists, who find more color in the terminally anguished. But, well, did I mention that Poppy irritates me to no end?
It’s a pathetic argument, I know. And it’s beset by hypocrisy. After all, is Poppy all that different from Johnny Depp’s J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland? There’s another individual who refuses to grow up, and we admire him for it; Barrie’s iron-grip on childhood fantasy is nothing short of courageous. So what’s Poppy’s crime? Is it being less interesting, or avoiding the death of a loved one that underscores the limited power of positivity? That seems unfair. Even I agree. If Barrie never grows up, why should Poppy? Then again, I wonder: Would critics be so quick to celebrate the exuberance of the character if she were a he and if he were played by Adam Sandler? My suspicion is at that point more people would call a spade a spade and an immature adult an immature adult. But maybe I’m wrong.
What does it say about me that I find Poppy so disagreeable as to be unwatchable? There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview is abhorrent and primitive and I find him captivating. No Country For Old Men’s Anton Chigurh is even more one-note, and he’s vicious, and yet I’d rather sit down to dinner with him than with Poppy – provided he didn’t have any loose change in his pockets, of course. So am I really this cynical? Is Leigh’s film cleverly revealing some frustration with my own life that I’m so put off by the sight of someone so utterly content? And who I am I to say that Poppy is empty? Maybe she has a lot to teach me. But I doubt it.
Your Honor, Poppy behaves like a giggly, insecure teenage girl. She’s as tedious and as false as a posturing frat boy. She is the epitome not of an optimism I hope to achieve or maintain but of a vapidity I try to avoid at all costs. I cannot celebrate her. I cannot enjoy her. I recognize that Hawkins’ performance might land her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and, believe it or not, I would support it. Hawkins’ immersion into Polly is entire. She plays the character as conceived. Poppy is false, yes, but Hawkins isn’t. It’s actually to Hawkins’ credit that I find Polly so aggravating. And I’m thankful that Happy-Go-Lucky provided me with two fleeting scenes in which Poppy sobers up long enough for me to enjoy Hawkins’ range and depth. Her talent is unmistakable. So why can’t I appreciate this film?
I don’t mean to be so rigid. I hate that this statement implies I subscribe to the notion that all films need to have, you know, plot, and/or that those plots must follow established, consumer-friendly conventions. Fuck all that. Why, it was only a few weeks ago, in a review of Meantime, that Ed Howard of Only The Cinema made this astute observation: “Leigh is undoubtedly a downer, and his films engage with political and social realities only to the extent of documenting the ways things are and why: he sees no way out for these people and thus offers no solutions. This unwavering commitment to actuality, to giving center-stage to the forgotten and ignored, is Leigh's greatest strength. These are people who, in mainstream cinema as in life, have no voice and no representation, and Leigh's humanist attention to these downtrodden sectors of society is the only attention they're likely to get.”
Your Honor, I cheered that observation then and cherish it still. I’m grateful that Leigh is telling these stories with his singular voice. I wish there were more filmmakers like him. I hope that the process of watching Happy-Go-Lucky perhaps knocked down some walls of preconception that will make it easier for some other unconventional film to come along in the future and find my heart. But movie-going and art appreciation is subjective. The charge of the critic, in my opinion, is to be objective enough to recognize one’s subjectivity and then to write honestly from that perspective. To praise as a masterpiece a film that didn’t so move me would be disingenuous. To condemn a film merely for shining a light on a truth I find disagreeable would be a crime. And so I admit today that I cannot formulate any reasonable judgment on Happy-Go-Lucky. Polly’s aura has blinded me with irritation.