November 20, 2008

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Happy-Go-Lucky (R)
A beaming-faced young woman answers all of life’s problems with a smile in Happy-Go-Lucky, a strange but charming little film about — gasp — happy people.

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is happy. As she tells her married, pregnant sister at one point in the movie, she likes her job, likes her friends, enjoys the freedom of being single, likes the companionship of her roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and is generally happy with the state of her life — “I’m a lucky lady,” Poppy says.

Naturally, this totally enrages her sister.

Perhaps too many writer types have heeded that Chekhov quote about unhappy families, but you don’t usually see genuinely happy people — particularly smart happy people — in movies. As Poppy shows, being happy isn’t easy. When Poppy’s bike is stolen (the only thing that seems to make her really sad about it is that she didn’t get to say goodbye to it), she takes driving lessons and her xenophobic instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) takes her buoyant attitude in every possible wrong direction. Perhaps it’s Poppy’s skills as a primary school teacher that let her successfully control the anger-filled Scott. When one of her anger-filled students starts to beat up on other students, Poppy’s able to boil it down to a problem that she can help him do something about — and in the process she meets the handsome social worker Tim (Samuel Roukin), who seems instantly smitten with this effusive teacher. All Poppy’s happiness seems to come from a place of remarkable strength. She is willing to see life for what it is (with all the problems and difficulties) and is still determined to “stay happy,” as she so often says to others in a kind of peppy sign-off.
In between these more serious moments are moments of sweetly goofy slapstick — a segment where Poppy tries to learn flamenco seems straight out of Laurel and Hardy-style classic comedy — that are so feather light they seem to bounce around the screen. She is a delight when she makes happy small talk with a petulant clerk. It’s a one-way conversation filled for the most part with clichés and hokey jokes but it works wonderfully well. A scene of her and her tipsy friends goofing around in her apartment after a night at the club is equally silly and fun. It’s the girl (and cleaner) version of the bro-chat in Judd Apatow movies.

Happy-Go-Lucky veers into some strange places and lingers on scenes that serve little story purpose but boost the smile-factor. It’s a feel-good movie, but not in the syrupy cupcakey way — it’s feel-good like a tart lemon sorbet in the middle of summer. Who knew happy could be so interesting? A-

Rated R for language. Written and directed by Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky is an hour and 58 minutes long and distributed in limited release by Miramax Films.