Mike Leigh—celebrated playwright, filmmaker, and world-class blowhard—rarely misses an opportunity to pay homage to his own work. In the case of his latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky, he sums up his agenda as life affirming and “anti-miserablist”—a riposte to critics who consider him an avatar of British realist gloom. Audiences familiar with Naked (1993), or the self-parodic All or Nothing (2002), might assume that a certain misanthropy and pessimism— either fairly bracing in the case of Naked or the embodiment of dime store existentialism in All or Nothing— is Leigh’s stock in trade. Yet Happy-Go-Lucky’s peppy protagonist, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a chirpy primary school teacher prone to muttering manic, or smart alecky, asides as she traverses London, is nothing if not a purveyor of sweetness and light. A revamped ‘30s screwball heroine, Poppy resides in north London with her rather thick kid sister Suzy (Kate O Flynn) and wisecracking roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman). Revealed eventually as a reservoir of empathy despite her ditzy façade—a loving mentor to her pupils and a fount of maternal concern for the local homeless population—she is nearly christened a secular saint by the end of the film; Our Lady of Bad Jokes might be an appropriate appellation.
Despite widespread assumptions that good-natured, well-intentioned characters are intrinsically boring, there is in fact a well-established, if somewhat murky, cinematic tradition devoted to evoking “goodness” in a nuanced, unsentimental fashion; Hara Setsuko’s complex portrayal of the seemingly selfless Noriko in Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1954) comes easily to mind. In any case, while there is nothing wrong with Leigh’s desire to depict one woman’s unadulterated happiness without undue sentimentality, the film becomes the victim of Leigh’s own penchant for frequently facile shtick and the pitfalls of his cherished methodology of transforming actors’ improvisations into a final shooting script.
While Leigh’s best films—particularly early television landmarks such as Grown Ups (1980), Home Sweet Home (1982), and Meantime (1983)—effortlessly combine comedy and pathos, the synthesis of gags and melodrama seems strained in Happy-Go-Lucky: much of the narrative trajectory, slight as it is, appears recycled from earlier, better Leigh films. Even Hawkins (indisputably a talented performer—and certainly a relentless one—and winner of the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlinale) appears to have, whether consciously or not, merged elements of previous echt-Leigh eccentrics into her superficially idiosyncratic portrayal: Poppy’s facetious logorrhea invokes the considerable less beneficent verbal tics of David Thewlis’s Johnny in Naked while her neurotic gestures recall the late Katrin Cartlidge’s Hannah in the equally slight, although considerably more poignant, Career Girls (1997).
Of course, self-plagiarism is not necessarily a serious transgression. The more serious complaint about Happy-Go-Lucky is that its fragile meld of comedy and social commentary fails to convince on all accounts. For one thing, Poppy, despite Leigh’s avowals that his films reflect nothing more than the contours of everyday life, is more of an idealized sketch of a Free Spirit than a believable human being. Perhaps more disconcertingly, in a movie that depends on a character’s humour for its quotient of charm and buoyancy, her impromptu quips, presumably nurtured during the extensive rehearsals, are rarely, if ever, funny. (To take one of the more egregious examples, when asked during a trip to her sister’s suburban home if she wants a baby, she replies, “Want a baby? No thanks, I just want to have a kebab.”)
Happy-Go-Lucky’s relatively stripped down narrative—the film is basically an interlinked series of vignettes—promises more than it delivers. To wit, since the looseness of the story elements gives a place of pride to comic interludes, the fact that many of these set pieces prove inferior to comparable material in sitcoms with more polished dialogue and characterizations such as Seinfeld or The Office makes one conclude that the chorus of acclaim for this punishing movie is more attributable to the weight of Leigh’s pretensions than any actual comic brio.
This disequilibrium is most evident in the critically celebrated confrontations between the uninhibited Poppy and Scott (Eddie Marsan), her profoundly repressed, paranoid, and racist driving instructor. Comedy traditionally relies on confrontations between spontaneous characters and rigid, authoritarian antagonists. But even given the two-dimensionality endemic to farce, the face-offs between Poppy and Scott fail to beguile. In a truly democratic comic universe of discourse, even the most insufferable twits such as John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty, Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, or Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge (to cite only British examples) have some redeeming, even appealing, qualities. The deck, however, is precipitously stacked in Happy-Go-Lucky. Poppy is the quintessence of benign lightheartedness and her driving instructor from hell is the devil incarnate.
Of course, some of Leigh’s defenders might claim that this Manicheanism is merely the product of his enlightened political concerns—and it is of course difficult not to prefer Poppy’s sprightly abandon to Scott’s crazed authoritarianism. Unfortunately, Happy-Go-Lucky’s political agenda is as wanly schematic as its limp humour. In a pivotal subplot, Poppy intervenes to help one of her troubled students, a bully whose truculent behaviour is obviously caused by domestic strife at home. Yet the creaky symmetry of her attempts to aid this unfortunate kid—an incipient Scott no doubt—is oddly narcissistic and apolitical. Her altruism nets her a hunky love interest, a social worker named Tim (Samuel Roukin) called in for a consultation with the problem child. The overall effect is much more New Agey than radical; if you perform good deeds, you’ll reap rewards in your personal life.
For those of us who have encountered Leigh in press conferences and one-on-one interviews over the years, perhaps the most grating aspect of Happy-Go-Lucky is the fact that he is temperamentally much closer to the irascible Scott than to the sunny Poppy. In Amy Raphael’s recently published Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, the enormously defensive Leigh (who interprets even the mildest criticism of his work as monumentally insulting) strenuously denies that he’s even slightly defensive. In this light, despite the dangers of ad hoc psychological analysis, it is difficult not to conclude that Poppy’s escapades constitute an extended wish-fulfillment fantasy for the dyspeptic director. (The charitable explanation for Leigh’s behaviour is that he does not “suffer fools gladly.” But since Raphael’s book chronicles Leigh’s tendency to inveigh against all of his critics as “stupid,” the man’s overweening insecurity is all too glaring.) Acerbity is not by nature superior to sweetness and generosity. Nevertheless, since Leigh appears to have more affinities with his gloomier protagonists than with inveterate optimist Poppy, Happy-Go-Lucky, is, good intentions notwithstanding, a rather fraudulent and half-hearted enterprise.