May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 8, 2008
“I’m the opposite of parched.”
Towards the beginning of Happy-Go-Lucky, Poppy and her friends are dancing in a club to Pulp’s “Common People.” This is the song in which Jarvis Cocker cynically croons about a rich girlfriend who wants to slum it for a while (“I said pretend you’ve got no money. She just laughed and said, ‘Oh you’re so funny.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can’t see anyone else smiling here.”) After watching the lovely introduction, Poppy flitting through her routine and baptizing a series of errands with her sparkling personality, Leigh smoothly firing on all his britophilic cylinders, the Pulp song sounds a jarring note. We learn early on that this film is about Poppy and how her uncommon glass-half-fullery spreads a little sunshine around her corner of London. “Common People” is about a disconnect, a young girl living in a fiction that others have to endure as reality. I am not sure if Leigh tossed this song into the mix to lend depth to our experience of Poppy’s otherwise straightforward happiness, or if it was just a random choice. (The video for the song has remarkable similarities to the overall mood of Happy-Go-Lucky.) Either way, it threw me for a loop. We watch Poppy looking for a chink in her armor, some backstory to her bliss, or an inevitable collapse. But it never comes. In conversations with her friends, shepherding the children in her class, prancing through a set of manic flamenco lessons, or dealing with the volcanic pedantry of her driving instructor, she maintains an even keel. Even in the climax of the film, in which she is unveiled as a perfect negative of Thewlis’ character in Naked, Poppy endures the tirade that has been building up in her driving instructor since day one. He is infuriated, he has been infected by Poppy’s fetching glee, and he just can’t square his attraction to her with his overtly cynical view of the world. Since I had been off-balanced throughout the film, I couldn’t decide whether or not I was supposed to agree with her driving instructor a little bit. He had a few good points.
And it wasn’t just the Pulp song that threw me off, though. I come to Leigh for his hands-off, improvisational approach to world-building, as he typically lets his actors grope their way through skeletal scripts. This kind of free-association shines through in the dialogue between Poppy and the bum, the two of them responding to each other in perfect harmony and rhythm like two horns trading solos in a jazz quartet. But usually, Poppy’s world seems more scripted than that of say, Cynthia Rose in Secrets and Lies. Happy-Go-Lucky is packed with articulate improvisation, but Leigh channels our perspective on Poppy into a strict narrative groove by opposing her with characters and situations that foil her so well. In Secrets and Lies, Cynthia’s persistent optimism is ultimately crushed, but it later re-emerges, fulfilled, in the barely scripted dialogue of these two reunited sisters. As Cynthia’s similar personality is born out of and responds to Leigh’s hands-off direction, it gains a gravitas that the more noticeable staging of Happy-Go-Lucky doesn’t permit Poppy. I would love to hang out with Poppy, just not in the world Leigh has built for her.