Friday, October 31, 2008

Mike Leigh gets happy, but why?

Mike Leigh's movies include such darkly hued works as "Vera Drake" (2004) and "Naked" (1993), but he also has made films that don't necessarily leave us distressed and depressed; i.e., "Topsy-Turvy (1999), "Secrets & Lies" (1996), "Life is Sweet" (1991) and "High Hopes" (1988). That's not to say that the movies in the latter group are all sweetness and light, but they've all benefited from Leigh's ability to mix comedy and drama.

Now comes "Happy Go Lucky," a film that's been hailed by many critics because it focuses on a person who moves through life with a giddy sense of joy. What are we supposed to think? Mike Leigh's gotten happy.

Maybe, but for me, "Happy Go Lucky" seemed less a sleight of hand than just plain slight, a small movie that never bursts its episodic, slice-of-life boundaries. I chuckled. I laughed. I wondered what all the fuss was about.

What happens? Giddy Poppy (Sally Hawkins) takes driving lessons from a whacked out instructor (Eddie Marsan). Poppy's big on lessons. She also studies flamenco with a ridiculously strong-willed teacher, a very funny Karina Fernandez. Poppy herself is a teacher; she works at an elementary school, lives with a flatmate (Alexis Zegerman) and has encounters of a small kind as she moves around London, a meeting with a mumbling homeless man (Stanley Townsend), for example.

"Happy Go Lucky" provides a platform for this sampling of London-based characters with Poppy -- whose giddy, giggling ways can be as annoying as they are engaging -- and her overly intense driving instructor occupying center stage. Leigh has hold of a nice comic idea - taking driving lessons from a man who barely can control his rage. Credit Marsan with allowing us to see the pathetic bitterness that informs this fury. Similarly, Poppy eventually breaks a one-dimensional surface with small, but surprising shows of wisdom and strength. But this is the stuff of a great sketch, not a full-bodied movie.

Are these characters meant to be emblematic of anything? Are they supposed to tell us something about life in London at it's being lived now? Do they have something important to say to us? Will folks 100 years from now look at "Happy Go Lucky" and say, "Yes, Mabel, this is the way it was?" Maybe because I'd been reading about the movie since it popped up on the festival circuit, I expected too much. Could I be looking Leigh's delightful gift horse in the mouth?

Decide for yourself, but at a time when the world sinks deeper into chaos and global brows continue to furrow, I expected something more than a bauble that amuses when it catches the light. If you ask me, this is no time to be happy.


I know. Putting even a brief comment about a Kevin Smith movie after a review of a Mike Leigh movie is a form of sacrilege. But I do it because I'm treating Smith's "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" as an afterthought -- if the word "thought" isn't a bit of a misrepresentation. I was never a great fan of Smith's breakthrough movie, "Clerks," and of all the rest of Smith's movies, only "Chasing Amy" struck me as worth watching. Although it has received some enthusiastic reviews, Smith's new comedy, "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" seems another waste. Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are friends and roommates who need money. They decide to make a porn film to help boost their sagging finances. The movie contains plenty of smutty attempts at humor, and, I suppose, some of them will hit the spot with Smith's fans. But the film tries to redeem itself with a burst of sentiment that begs for acceptance. Rogen, usually part of Judd Apatow's comic repertory company, probably will help sell the movie, but this is not his finest -- nor funniest -- hour, make that hour and 42 minutes.

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