Happy, Lucky, Plucky–yet strangely I loved this

Jeff has already written compellingly but concisely about Mike Leigh’s last film, but I was so taken by it–and so surprised in being swept up–that I wanted to jot a few notes.

Happiness is hard to perform. There’s something about an unfettered joy that seems unserious, shallow — if not plain fake, a thin veneer of cheeriness just waiting for a slap from others’ bad behavior to knock loose the mask and reveal the (true) face of tragedy below. So when I heard about Leigh’s film I let it slide into my on-dvd pile; I could only imagine that its peppy Poppy would a) irritate the bejesus out of me or b) be merely a patsy awaiting her comeuppance, that inevitable moment of Candidean vitriol where Poppy’s foolishness leads to her misfortune. Leigh instead finds ways to make Poppy both serious and utterly seriously flip, invested in her goofy one-liners and earnest engagement with others even as we catch flashes of a real awareness of others’ pain in her eyes. (Sally Hawkins is flat marvelous in this role.)

Certainly we get some uproarious collisions, particularly with Scott (Eddie Marsan, playing as Jeff notes a version of Naked‘s Thewlis), where Poppy’s game inability to take Scott’s rage seriously makes him ever angrier, makes her spit out even more semi-flirtatious lines and cheap puns and winks and nudges, which makes him… It’s like a social realist version of Laurel & Hardy, with more rage on the latter end and far more intelligence in the former.

But Leigh develops an interesting, tonally-difficult trick that belies the social-realist tag: rather than displace the ‘fakeness’ of happiness with a more grounded performance, Leigh opts for scenes of distressingly awkward, not-particularly-funny bonhomie between Poppy and her pals, exaggerating the artifice of the good time. At first I was wholly unnerved by these scenes — clearly the folks in front of (and behind) the camera know how false this dialogue is? What’s going on? It couldn’t just be bad writing, could it? I’m still puzzling over what to make of it — but these moments of artificial laughter are played with no irony or cynicism, yet neither are they “real” moments of happiness — they force us to engage with our own conventional approaches to the ostensible falsity of joy. And then when Poppy collides with Scott, or other disaffected and pained characters, their rage or despair *is* taken seriously, or is written and performed with far less artifice. (The scene with the homeless character aside… ‘though I liked it more than Jeff, found its form of artifice intriguing, and not as tin-eared as he’d suggested.)

I guess I’m tossing out an open confusion on my part, an invitation to consider the film and/or Leigh. Am I just overreading these scenes as artifice, or do they display the actual failures of capturing happiness? And, even if they are overplayed for emphasis, does the film deconstruct the oppositional privilege we grant to rage and tragedy and pain over joy and happiness… or am I missing ways that Poppy does, indeed, reveal the “serious” behind her (bland) smile? (Note that the very last line of dialogue, from Poppy, is “No”… not your typical comic ending, and perhaps a complicated refutation of the unwavering “yes” she seems to be offering the world throughout.)

Well, whatever. I really loved this film.

7 thoughts on “Happy, Lucky, Plucky–yet strangely I loved this”

  1. I watched it for a second time with Nicola last weekend and enjoyed it even more (perhaps my election anxiety obstructed my first experience with the film). Still, I’m not sure as to what scenes you are referring Mike. Are you talking about the post-dance party reverie between Poppy and her friends in the first half hour (were they taking X at the club; that seems to be my take or maybe they were just pissed as hell)? It was a wild and woolly Saturday night, but on Sunday she and her closest friend prepare for the coming week of work. There’s something there about the need to find release from the daily grind that many (certainly those with families and mortgages) find harder and harder to access. I don’t remember anything “artificial” (I mean, it is the heavy-lidded morning after a long night of bodily excess; the girls’ silliness is not out of the ordinary). Plus, I think Leigh wants to set the spectator up, because aren’t we meant to be surprised that Poppy is a elementary school teacher absolutely committed to her vocation and her kids? Our expectations of her character are thwarted (and I think that’s what fuels the entire film . . . just when we think we have unlocked Poppy’s mysteries, she confounds our desires to know all there is to know). It’s hard to categorize this film as social-realism (that film would involve something a bit less satisfying than Poppy’s “happy ending”). Poppy strikes me as open, flighty and grounded, but, as the flamenco instructor so carefully articulates, one must stake their ground and not give one inch to those who attempt to contain one’s energies. One must always stand their ground, and in that final sequence with Scott, she reveals she has the fortitude and the strength that, perhaps, we were initially unwilling to assign to her “ditzy yet loveable” character. She’s clearly attuned to the casual rhetorical and physical violence that pervades her daily life, but she refuses to give in to its overwhelming and soul killing oppressiveness. She rises above it.

    Finally, I’m not entirely sure how to spin out its meanings, but the film is about teaching, yes? About the role of teachers and mentors in a world that seems to grow more cruelly complex day by day by day.

    Finally, the “no” to which you speak is directed at Scott, but the unspoken yes is moving at light speed toward her new fit lad. Like most heroines in a comedy, she is rewarded, and while the celebration on the lake lacks Shakespearean scope, it is a happy ending nonetheless.

  2. No, a more autobiographical me would emphasize the ostentatious joy of falsity.

    Sorry I didn’t get back about this yesterday. You raise some good points, particularly about teaching, mentoring. And Poppy works through listening–that is the purpose, however artificial, of the scene with the seemingly schizophrenic homeless man. She echoes his verbal confusion, and connects not with a message or cooing good will but through a complete open empathy to what he’s *trying* to say. She recognizes in everyone (the aggressive boy in class, her sister, Scott) a need–and she doesn’t seek to fill the need as much as hear it.

    But regarding the artificiality: it isn’t just the scene after the night out, which seemed overblown in its “funny” talk in a manner that (all too) accurately captured the great good cheer and witlessness of drunken party people. No, I’m thinking of the morning after, of most every conversation with roommate Zoe, of the over-drinks discussion with her colleague after the first flamenco lesson: it isn’t just that the dialogue seems faux-snappy, ’cause that I *might* see as reflective of many people’s social performance style. But the manner in which the dialogue is played echoes screwball comedy — lines run up to and over one another, jokes and replies zing out of mouths too quickly, too neatly. It’s never screwball hilarious, but it is nonetheless paced in a manner that foregrounds a kind of artificial “fun.”

    I still think this isn’t merely my misreading; there’s something knotty about the way Leigh seems to be *staging* Poppy’s pep, that sense that he isn’t just capturing a “real” kind of person as much as creating a kind of formal argument about how we engage with happiness, and what happiness might mean. And the complement is how we deal with pain, and rage, and sadness — perhaps by staging Poppy’s happiness more artificially (or -fully?), he also displaces the tendency to make a voyeuristic consumable meal of pain and despair — forces us to, like Poppy, listen better, to engage with the others’ own means of communicating, rather than working wholly (and unempathically) from within our own?

  3. have been wanting to post on this for a few days but i felt a sort of moral obligation to reread the above comments first. since i am innerly certain that i still won’t understand a word reynolds says (i’m joking mike!!! you are just too cerebral for me, but i get you buddy!!!), let me try to jump into this conversation and you’ll judge if what i say is part of the conversation or only pretend part of the conversation and in fact only what i would have said anyway (except i wouldn’t, so my intentions are pure).

    the first half of this bored me. the second half entranced and delighted me. this may have been me or the film. i watched it on two different evenings. simon felt the same, but you know how it is with people who have spent so much damn time together. we think all the same thoughts (except when we don’t).

    the representation of happiness doesn’t seem to me more difficult, in itself, than the representation of any other feeling. the point is to make it interesting. (i realize i’m not saying nothing new, but stay with me). since our comedies and tragedies and movies and books want tension and conflict, you have to have a focus of conflict, and leigh creates it in the driving instructor scott (eddie marsan: amazing) and in the driving lesson scenes. this encounter between good — if manic, and über-irritating — cheer and genuine kindness in poppy (in the special features leigh explicitly talks about poppy as being a presence of love, and i must say that i absolutely perceived her that way) and paranoia, fury, insecurity, and pain in scott is as intense as any i’ve seen, crammed inside a small car that is also a ticking bomb (cars are lethal machines, man). both scott and poppy do the dramatic work, though, not only scott, and this is damn good writing/directing/acting. poppy grows from flippantly cheerful to movingly aware of scott’s pain, and genuinely drawn, in her own way, to soothe it. it may or may not be cool to kidnap someone’s car’s keys, but maybe scott hasn’t had anyone in a long time who actually cared whether he got hurt or not, and invested energy and time in him, and fought him. poppy brings to bear all the tension-defusion skills she has acquired as a kindergartner teacher, and whether they are appropriate for an adult or not — it would have irritated me no end and i would have felt patronized — ultimately, at the time of the resolution of the conflict, scott is not patronized by restored to dignity and a moment of relational authenticity.

    leigh could not have made poppy just good, and i take the good cheer to be a foil for the goodness in her, a necessary counterbalance but also a necessary flaw. goodness comes in an imperfect package the same as smarts, cleverness, wisdom, and other, less nobles skills do.

    so, it seems to me, the root of poppy’s happiness is her goodness, not her cheer. her cheer is the imperfect way with which she (sometimes) shows it.

    we typically expect love and kindness to be counterbalanced by inner pain or rage. these are generally the cracks that do not take away from but validate the authenticity of goodness. leigh is quite brave in not following this path. while, as mike points out, you expect poppy’s determined cheer to crack and show the true unhappiness beneath, what it shows when it cracks (i.e. loses its manic facade) is a calm and wise kindness.

    i agree with jeff in not seeing artificiality in poppy. the drunken scene in the first third of the film is a staple of english girl comedies (or is it?) so whatever, but if on other occasions poppy *may* be talking slightly on top of the other person (i’m thinking of when she has drinks with the school principal after the flamenco class), she is, indeed, as jeff says, genuinely engaged, and totally invested in listening. and you may notice how, in the film, she does in fact most of the listening. zoe tries to find out what she did the night she hung out with the schizophrenic guy, but poppy deflects zoe’s questions with lightness and grace. there’s, again as jeff says, groundedness there, the capacity and willingness to have a solid and tenderly guarded inner life.

    as for comedy, i actually grew to find extremely funny some of the driving scenes, and i loved the time when, at flamenco class, poppy goofily slinks through the class to put her glasses down. the flamenco’s instructor cheeriness and jokingness are, in fact, a good example of artificiality. can you imagine poppy giving the stern look to someone who has forgotten to put her glasses down and consequently disrupts the class? she would have quipped some english nonsense and smiled away, then resumed her work with ease.

    you’re right, jeff, there’s a lot here about teaching. i was very moved by the first time poppy sees the little boy nick beating on another boy in the schoolyard. she is behind a window and, wisely, does not intervene. but concern and full attention fill her eyes. she intervenes the second time we see this happening, but does not in any way scold or humiliate the kid. instead, she draws him out. the flamenco teacher, or zoe, for that matter, are nowhere near poppy’s ability to connect.

    the encounter with scott and the schizophrenic men are particularly interesting, for me, because there is real threat there. the ranting guy is big and the area is deserted. scott is enraged by his own desire. there is one little element that sticks out to me: poppy does not give up the boots, yet she does not get confrontational about it in the least bit.

    listen, we have has mass shooting just about every day in the last, what? week? month? in this country. i can’t help thinking that if we were less scared of each other, and more aware of the fact that others have things to say that can be listened to, those others would not need to reach the moment when they pick up a gun and shoot it. yeah, i loved this movie, too.

  4. Even though you made fun of me, and I’m crying, and not inside-crying but outside-snot-running-down-crying, I still like your comments. This movie was WAY better than Tell No One.

  5. Another Year. This struck me as a somewhat masochistic exercise in abject miserablism. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play the most beatific, middle-class British couple ever. Their friends, however, are a mess. Lesley Manville delivers the more admirable and controlled performance, but it doesn’t mean her character won’t drive you mental. Peter Wight’s character, on the other hand, overindulges to the point of distraction. I wanted the character to go into cardiac arrest if only to satisfy a rather masochistic desire of my own for narrative verisimilitude. I like Mike Leigh; I’ll watch anything he puts up on a screen, but this was a hard slog.

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