Sunday, February 22, 2009

Muriels: Best Picture, 10th Place

Happy-Go-Lucky (99 points/10 votes)

“’Optimism as a rebellious act.’

“My friend, fellow film critic (and fellow Muriel voter) Sean Burns, dropped those five words in a Twitter post after he saw Happy-Go-Lucky, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t hit the nail on the head on that one. (It’s one of many things he has said that I wished I said first.)

“While Miramax foolishly marketed the movie as a light-hearted, free-spirited, quirky comedy (great movie that it is, it has to have the worst art-house movie trailer of 2008), Happy-Go-Lucky is deceptively subversive. It’s also startlingly, culturally relevant. As the threat of a Great Depression looms over our collective consciousness, this portrait of a British woman keeping a positive outlook in an increasingly cynical culture is even more of a much-needed, inspiring story of underdog perseverance than beloved audience favorite Slumdog Millionaire.

“After taking us down the rabbit hole of working-class misery and despair many times in his movies, writer-director Mike Leigh pulls a 180 and serves up the story of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an aptly-named, almost-childlike primary schoolteacher who virtually lives to put a smile on everyone’s face. Of course, some people (including the person writing this) find that sort of thing annoying. And when we first see her, cheerfully riding her bicycle around the London streets, popping into a bookstore and awkwardly attempting to strike up a conversation with the sullen clerk behind the counter, we start to wonder if we’ll find her annoying, too.

“However, as the movie pushes forward, we begin to view Poppy’s continually chipper, neuroses-free brand of sunshine as her most enviable trait. As Poppy’s friends and co-workers occupy themselves with trivial grievances that keep them comfortably pissed, Poppy remains an unbreakable source of positive energy, undeterred by the slightest bit of negativity. She may look like a flaky kook, covered in loud, gaudy wardrobe that’s as bright and showy as she is, but she’s one of the most unflappable, strong-willed characters I’ve seen in a movie recently.

“Needless to say, Poppy’s sunny disposition gets challenged throughout, whether it’s getting her bike stolen (‘I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye,’ she mutters) or briefly handling back pain (from too much trampoline-jumping) or dealing with a angry, racist, anti-social driving instructor (a snarling Eddie Marsan) who later becomes her stalker. But even when she drops her loopy facade and gets serious for a couple of moments (Hawkins does a marvelous job showing that this consistently cheeky character does indeed have layers), she immediately gets right back on her glass-half-full path.

“As always in a Mike Leigh movie, the cast is uniformly superb, working together as an well-oiled unit and tossing witty lines back-and-forth to each other as if they’ve all known one another for ages. It will forever baffle me how the Oscars failed to nominate Hawkins for Best Actress (or, for that matter, Alexis Zegerman for Best Supporting Actress, for her wonderful turn as Poppy’s sarcastic flatmate/best friend). But then again, she did play the antithesis of an Oscar-worthy role. She didn’t play a character with drug problems or money problems or a deep, dark secret or an axe to grind. She wasn’t a wrathful nun or a truth-seeking single mom or an illiterate Nazi cougar.

“No, she just played somebody who’s content with her life. And while that may not sound like anything special, she certainly showed that’s the most powerful thing a person can be these days.” ~ Craig D. Lindsey

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