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With: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Samuel Roukin, Karina Fernandez, Sinead Matthews, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Sarah Niles
Written by: Mike Leigh
Directed by: Mike Leigh
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 118
Date: 02/12/2008

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Here We Go, Gigolo!

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The great British director Mike Leigh has always been at his best with the darkest material; most aficionados would agree that his greatest film to date is the very grim Naked (1993). Even his lightest films, like Life Is Sweet (1991) and Topsy-Turvy (1999) tend to wallow in gloominess. When I heard that the new Leigh film was called Happy-Go-Lucky, I had to laugh. Just imagine how miserable this one would be! But what I actually saw was a huge surprise; not only is it one of the year's best films, but also it's a film so joyous and uplifting that you just want to pluck it off the screen, put it in your pocket and carry it around with you. Yes, it has its sinister elements, but Leigh is careful to filter them through the eyes of his title heroine, the schoolteacher Poppy (Sally Hawkins). In the film's opening moments, Poppy rides her bicycle, carefree, through the streets of London, looking something like a movie star on her day off. She pops into a bookstore, cheerfully tries and fails to engage the sullen clerk, and returns to find that her bike has been stolen. "I never even got to say goodbye," she says, disappointed.

Leigh somehow maintains Poppy's sunny attitude in a real-world setting, keeping her from becoming an annoying caricature. Indeed, Poppy is very often faced with frustration and disappointment, but her first impulse is to react with a joke, rather than anger. Sometimes her jokes are ridiculous, but they often come with a silly gesture or a funny face, and the adorable Hawkins pulls off this intricate balancing act. (She deserves many accolades in this upcoming awards season.)

Generally, Happy-Go-Lucky plays out in episodes, rather than an intricate plot. Poppy does many things in the film, including attending a flamenco dancing class, throwing out her back on a trampoline, visiting her pregnant sister, making bird masks for her little students, and even falling in love. None of it weighs on the movie with any plot-like intentions. For example, we may think that the back injury will return to wreak havoc somewhere in the third act, but it doesn't. It just heals. We're mainly here to observe Poppy's way of seeing it all. In one sequence, Poppy goes out for a late-night walk and attempts to speak to a crazy homeless man; the episode feels disconnected from the rest of the film, and Poppy deliberately keeps the adventure to herself, but it also points to everything else in the film. I suspect that it will be a sticking point with many detractors, much like Margie's lunch with her old classmate in Fargo.

The most important recurring bit is Poppy's driving lessons, necessitated by the loss of her bike. Her teacher is Scott (Eddie Marsan), who is almost the exact opposite of Poppy. He demands structure and rigor (he keeps repeating his driving mantra, "enraha," which essentially means to keep looking in your three mirrors). He's rigid and miserable, and when he gets angry -- which is often -- Marsan's eyes turn dartlike, and his wretched, yellow teeth begin to protrude from his jaw (accompanied by projectiles of spittle). Scott and Poppy's radically opposite approaches to the world eventually clash in a drastic, yet moving, way. These challenges to Poppy's happy defense system are the film's point, and the fact that Poppy continually meets them and masters them makes her a true heroine.

Though I've enjoyed -- or admired -- many other Leigh films, Happy-Go-Lucky is the first one that made me want to turn around and see it again, right away.

DVD Details: Miramax's DVD has one dinky little featurette, plus one more in-depth one (about 30 minutes), plus a commentary track by Mike Leigh.

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