Death to the pixies

Happy Go Lucky (MUN Cinema, February 26 at Avalon Mall Empire Studio 12)

If there’s one modern cliché that’s really gotten on my nerves as a movie-goer, it’s the Manic Pixie Girl.

What’s that? You don’t know what the Manic Pixie Girl is? Sure you do. Hell, it seems like the bulk of romantic comedies rely on them these days. Picture a stodgy, buttoned-down curmudgeon who is lured away from his cardboard cut-out lifestyle by a “free spirit,” a girl who “doesn’t play by the rules” who causes the menfolk to think. (“A girl standing on her head? How positively zany! My heart will grow two sizes this day!”) The male variation on this cliché is the Loveable Slacker, as seen in fare like Smart People, but that’s a different story.

A story is a terrible thing to waste, and it’s a real shame that writer-director Mike Leigh (Naked, Secrets & Lies) decided to make one the centerpiece of Happy Go Lucky.

While Leigh hasn’t made a tired romantic comedy here, the end result is remarkably tedious. The film follows a primary schoolteacher nicknamed “Poppy” (Sally Hawkins) as she drinks, hangs out with friends, goes to work and takes driving lessons. Happy Go Lucky never ceases to show us how happy and friendly Poppy is in contrast to the public at large—but precious little insight is given beyond that. A scene where a character suggests Poppy is an unhappy slacker at heart arrives very late in the film, is never developed, and there’s precious little variation on the character that results. Poppy tries to chat up the bookstore clerk, the Flamenco instructor, the driving instructor, the insert-character-here, and these hapless victims usually find her unbearably irritating. This isn’t surprising, since Poppy is the cinematic embodiment of that bore at parties who laughs loudest at their own stupid jokes. Poppy is The Office’s David Brent in a film without a punch line.

A number of critics have been raving about this navel-gazing affair, but it’s hard to see why. The only point of interest is the subplot involving Scott, a deranged driving instructor played by Eddie Marsan. He’s a paranoid, uptight, cynical and thoroughly awkward human being whose relationship with Poppy slowly develops into something messy and complicated. Unfortunately, there’s no payoff to their interactions, as the movie abruptly ends just as things get interesting.

I admit, there’s potential in a film about someone like Poppy, even though she is a Manic Pixie, but Leigh doesn’t seem interested in anything resembling story mechanics. Happy Go Lucky looks good, and the actors all hit their marks, but it’s just as empty as its two-dimensional lead.

Adam Clarke

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  1. Ricky · March 15, 2011

    I watched this movie last night. Never even heard of it before then. Didn’t love the movie but I got a crush on Poppy!

  2. Liam · March 15, 2011

    I read this review before going to see Happy-Go-Lucky and, having enjoyed Mike Leigh’s previous films, consequently went along with some trepidation. I now find myself wondering if the review was written by Eddie Marsan’s taxi-driving misogynist. The film is by no means one of Leigh’s greatest, not when compared with Secrets and Lies or Vera Drake, but neither is it the clichéd snore-fest the review had led me to anticipate.

    Undoubtedly, quirky female characters appear to be in vogue in films at the moment, and their primary role does seem to be to add colour to a male character’s life. Two examples that spring to mind are Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Stranger Than Fiction. The Maggie Gyllenhaal-Will Ferrell relationship in the latter seemed extremely unlikely; an implausible male fantasy of super-cool girl falling in love with dull man. However, the same cannot be said of Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky. She is the central character, the film revolves around her and who she is. Whether you like her or not is somewhat incidental, and her role is certainly nothing to do with luring the male characters from their ‘cardboard cutout’ lives.

    The description of her as ‘[trying] to chat up the bookstore clerk, the Flamenco instructor, the driving instructor’ rang no bells at all. Perhaps something was lost in cultural translation. As a Briton watching a Briton, I would say she tries to start a conversation with the bookstore clerk, who appears incapable of response, that she doesn’t even speak to the flamenco instructor, and the crux of her relationship with her driving instructor is that he thinks she’s chatting him up when she isn’t. To me at least, it was clear that she was simply being herself and trying to engage him in friendly conversation. The David Brent comparison is way off the mark: Brent is a tragi-comic character, trying desperately to be funny and be liked, and being painfully, uncomfortably unable to achieve it. There’s no desperation about Poppy at all. She is who she is, silly, annoying, exasperating, funny, believable. Most of all she is herself, and doesn’t care too much what other people make of this, though it evidently annoys some of them.

    The relationship between Poppy and the driving instructor is arguably the key one in the film, and certainly not a ‘subplot’. Their relationship is a clash of personalities that evolves over the course of a few driving lessons, eventually resulting in a violent argument which Poppy tries to resolve calmly. She recognizes that they’ll never get along, that she can’t get through to him, so the only thing for her to do is to walk away. What kind of ‘payoff’ is missing? Their relationship is completed, albeit unpleasantly. Poppy appears upset by this, but perhaps resigned to the fact that some adults are irresolvably unhappy.

    As Mike Leigh fans have come to expect, the performances are good, the dialogue crisp and naturalistic, and the film meanders along contentedly. Yes, there are some odd moments – Poppy’s meeting with a monosyllabic tramp is rather puzzling, although she herself asks ‘What am I doing here?’ – and her relentless optimism does become rather wearing, but Leigh recognizes this. Her friends don’t hide it when she exasperates them, her driving instructor is maddened by her, and her familial relationships are sometimes uncomfortable. A pretty accurate reflection of how people respond to upbeat individuals in real life (at least in the UK), and a thought-provoking study of the impact of both happiness and its absence.

    A film of ‘precious little insight’? No, but I couldn’t think of a better way to describe the review.

  3. Adam Clarke · March 15, 2011

    “I now find myself wondering if the review was written by Eddie Marsan’s taxi-driving misogynist”

    Sir, I am deeply offended by the suggestion that I am a taxi driver.

    “Undoubtedly, quirky female characters appear to be in vogue in films at the moment”

    Sorry, but didn’t Bringing Up Baby come out 71 years ago? That’s an extremely lengthy moment.

  4. just sayin' · March 15, 2011

    Bringing up, Bringing Up Baby really isn’t really enough to dispute Liam’s claim of a “recent trend” of quirky female arm accessories in popular film. Granted I am the last person to offer opinions about recent trends in popular film as I stopped paying attention like half a decade ago. But that said… I do know your reference point, and well – Katherine Hepburn’s performance is memorable for the fact that it was unique, stand out – as in not part of a trend at the time otherwise that film would be long forgotten.

    Yes, Susan Vance (Hepburn) is an example of a quirky female roles in the history of popular film (and I haven’t seen this other movie in question) but since 71 years of trends have come and gone referencing it now holds no weight to try to dispute commentary on current trends… unless of course Liam had claimed that “Poppy” was the first quirky female lead ever, which he did not.

    Liam’s review of the film seemed thoughtful enough, minus the need to personally attack the author of the review he was responding to… but one opens oneself up to criticism (fairly so) when one offers it first.

    just sayin’

  5. Adam Clarke · March 15, 2011

    I’d argue that it is as a means of showing just how old this trope is. Quirky female characters as described in my review have never gone away nor are they only recently in vogue. Liam claimed otherwise, which prompted my short rebuttal. There are plenty of movies with these one-note stereotypes in them and a multitude have been churned out fairly continuously for at least 71 years.

    Also, when you personally attack someone, your (counter-)criticism loses any weight it might have had. If you need to resort to writing of Liam’s caliber, for instance, any fresh opinion is tainted by its author’s pettiness.

  6. Mikiki · March 15, 2011

    wow. I wouldn’t have watched it if this didn’t seem like there was a group of boys talking about how annoying feminine-assigned attributes are, on film or otherwise.
    I also think in Liam’s comment that the subtle inference that there might be some misogyny at play in Adam’s initial review might well be seen as a personal attack, and while I don’t know if that was the intention, I also know that it can be really difficult for someone, anyone (heavens especially a MAN) to call out another man on something said that they find sexist.
    Again, i find it can be more helpful to call people out on what they SAY as opposed to what we might think they ARE.
    As Adam points out- it allows for people to escape what might be accurate criticism because we’re workin on an assumption of this person’s “essential nature” as a misogynist. which is a friggin hard thing to prove from the tone of one movie review where he finds the lead character’s personality annoying.
    That said, I’ll check out the movie and watch Bringing Up Baby again too. Just to see what the big deal about quirky women on screen is.
    Good thing this wasn’t a review of Rocknrolla’s continuation of the trend of naturalizing queerness into str8 movies or I’d have had a copper kitten!
    or would I have…