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.


Ed Howard said...

Interesting review, I appreciate the honesty of documenting the external factors affecting your view of the movie. You don't see that enough with critics -- sometimes objectivity is simply impossible, so why pretend otherwise?

I'm finally gonna go see this tomorrow, so I'll have more to say then I'm sure.

Joel Bocko said...

Another great review, topped by a picture which perfectly sums up your point of view. I don't like her much after looking at that photo, either.

Are you a Twin Peaks fan, and if so what do you think of Agent Cooper? I would think he fits the J.M. Barrie bill of dabbling enough on the dark side to justify his chipper persona.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks gents.

Ed: I suspect that one of the factors in the objectivity battle is that many critics respond first and foremost to the entertainment value. So if one doesn't enjoy a character, a movie becomes unworthy. I tried to avoid that trap here. Nevertheless, I think of Mona Lisa or David and I'm aware that a lot of "great" art is beautiful art -- figures we're attracted to. In cinema, I think we want to be drawn to the characters, even if we're repulsed by them. Polly didn't draw me in. She made me want to flee.

So, question for you and others: Can you name a time you found a character so disagreeable that it ruined a film? I know I've had similar experiences, but never on this level. Watching this film was actually painful for me.

MM: Alas, I've never seen a single episode of "Twin Peaks," which is frustrating because I wish I could dive into the series going on at your blog. I've read a few pieces and I know if I were a fan of the show I'd be eating it up.

Joel Bocko said...

Jason, as a word of warning - stay away! Until you immerse yourself in the world of Twin Peaks, that is (though please let me know when you do, as I'd love to see how my posts work in tandem with the episodes instead of looking back on them). I make an effort to avoid future spoilers, but discuss any & all sensitive material pertaining to the particular episode at hand. Also, spoilers for future episodes have been known to come up in the comments sections...

But yeah, if you do get into the series it should be safe to follow along.

As for liking the characters, I had a similar response to the movie Rules of Attraction - though the tone & style also grated on me endlessly.

Jason Bellamy said...

That's crazy. "Rules of Attraction" came up recently on this blog. Check it out, including comments.

And I'll stay away from "Twin Peaks" posts. Realistically, I've got so many movies and/or TV series I want to get to and can't make time for that I'm unlikely to ever get there. And if I do, the chances that I'll remember what I've read are slim to none. Still, your series inspires the inner geek in me.

Ed Howard said...

Jason: for Coop's sake, man, go get a copy of the Twin Peaks box set. There's seldom been a more delightfully odd show on television.

As for your question, I can't say I've ever been turned off a movie solely because of a character I dislike. In fact, I generally tend to *like* movies about characters I dislike, if that makes any sense: provided the film and its aesthetics are interesting, I don't really care if I'd want to go have a beer with the characters, and often on screen disagreeable characters are simply more interesting than nice ones. The people in Eric Rohmer's films are often infuriating and act in ways that would annoy me if I knew them in real life; the films themselves are mostly sublime despite this. A lot of Woody Allen films can be similarly annoying if one is inclined to judge the characters like real-life acquaintances -- Celebrity, which I watched recently, certainly comes to mind. For that matter, Leigh's films in general are populated by pretty nasty, amoral, and disagreeable people, like Johnny in Naked, one of the most captivating films I've ever seen.

Jason Bellamy said...

See, here's the thing, Ed: I agree with you. Woody Allen's films are a terrific example. In real life I'd avoid those people like a Nic Cage marathon. But on screen, I love them. I'm engaged.

That's what's so puzzling about Poppy to me. What makes her so different from those other losers, murderers, rapists, liars, crooks or general assholes? I don't know. I just found her empty, which is no surprise because her antics remind me of real people who I find empty. And I couldn't get past it. I tried to look deep into her, and I saw nothing there.

Note: When you see this film, you're likely to challenge me on this. So let me get this out of the way: I know there are scenes that suggest Poppy isn't as empty-headed as she comes off. I'm not ignorant to that. But I still find her empty as a whole. With very rare exception, I could see right through her.

Jason Bellamy said...

Oh, and on "Twin Peaks," I'll get right to it ... after I get to "The Wire," or "Mad Men," or all the Kurosawa and Godard I've yet to see. Etc. Etc.

So many interests. So little time.

Brew said...

To answer your question regarding awful acting: Yes, I can think of several examples where a film has been ruined by a horrible performance. Some movies I can watch, but always have to fast-forward through a particular character’s screen time:

Lorraine Bracco – Goodfellas
Madeline Stowe – We Were Soldiers
Andie McDowell – Groundhog Day
Helena Bonham Carter – Fight Club
Gretchen Mol – Rounders

And some examples of performances that are so bad that the movie is unwatchable:

Nicholas Cage – Con Air
Hayden Christiansen – All Star Wars
Ben Stiller – Dodgeball
Tom Cruise – Cocktail
Matthew McConaughey/Al Pacino – Two For The Money
Larenz Tate – The Postman

And, yeah, I watch a lot of bad movies!!

Jason Bellamy said...

Brew: Good list. But different than what I'm going for.

What I've criticized above isn't the acting (Hawkins achieves exactly what the role calls for) but the character itself. So to use your example, it would be not liking Andie MacDowell's character in "Groundhog Day" because you loath all news producers, or something like that, not because you dislike her performance.

That said, blogs are made for tangents so ...

We've covered this ground before, but I disagree with you strongly on Helena Bonham Carter in "Fight Club" -- she's what's best thing going in that movie, as far as I'm concerned.

And though I'm always a fan of a good Nic Cage dig, would "Con Air" have been watchable with anyone in that role? Wait a minute. Maybe. But I know "The Postman" would have sucked regardless.

P.S. Thank you, Roger Ebert, for making "sucks," and its forms, an acceptable term for serious film discussion.

Joshua said...

Sorry. I read one tiny reference to The Wire and had to post some encouragement. I love Twin Peaks and all but The Wire is hands down the best television show of all time.

hokahey said...

Irritating characters:

Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss)/ "Mr Holland's Opus" - His enthusiasm was so fake! I can't stand this movie because of his character.

Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton)/ "Reds" - I never believed her character; she, along with the talking heads, took a lot from a potentially great film.

Chewbacca (Does it matter?)/ "Star Wars" - What a bland, useless character - though he didn't ruin the movie for me; I'll take Jar-Jar any day.

Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins)/ "The Silence of the Lambs" - I never believed him - with his name - Hannibal - so it rhymes with Cannibal - that suck noise he makes with his tongue - and the whole liver and Chianti contrivance. I love Hopkins but he could have created a much more artful character. I am not a fan of this film - mostly because of Hannibal Lecter.

Fox said...

Dang. Sorry I came to this late (THANKSGIVING!... you know????).

But Jason you are so wrong... just kidding... you make good points... just kidding... you're just jealous of Poppy... just kidding just kidding just kidding.

No, but seriously, as much as I love this movie, I expected to hear this opinion from people that I respect. Watching Poppy on screen I just knew that she would rub some viewers the wrong way.

I don't know if this applies as fair contrast to your points, but I see Poppy as a kind of creation in the way that Johnny was a creation of Leigh's in Naked. Meaning, I think you are right in pointing out some of Poppy's ultra-exaggerated character traits and mannerisms, but I loved the way Leigh uses them as a force.

Or, maybe I just love Happy-Go-Lucky and embrace Poppy b/c - instead of knowing too many Poppy's - I've come across too many Scott's.

Great thoughts though. I'm gonna read this again tomorrow morning. I'm trying to remember what Depp's performance was like in Finding Neverland.