Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Accentuate the Positive
A few months ago, Jason Bellamy wrote a post exploring how one can initially dislike a movie only to come around to enjoying it later. His personal example, The Player, prompts me to take the argument even further to confess there are filmmakers I didn't get for a long time --such as The Player's own Robert Altman -- but now whose body of work I admire greatly. I still, however, have yet to get Mike Leigh. Not for lack of trying: I gave up halfway through Naked and Life is Sweet; Brenda Blethyn's Oscar-baiting blubbering (does she have another mode?) in Secrets & Lies had me cringing beneath a pillow; Topsy-Turvy, Leigh's most acclaimed picture to date, is the only English-language film I've ever seen where I needed subtitles to follow.
It's possible that I'm wrong about those movies, and that I'm also wrong about his latest recipient of sparkling reviews, Happy-Go-Lucky. Not that it's a bad film. It boasts one terrific performance -- though not from the actor drawing all the praise -- and it held my attention to the end. Still, watching an entire Mike Leigh movie from start to finish had the effect of confirming a long-held suspicion: behind his "improvisational" way of making a movie lies some pretty schematic plotting. It's obvious early on, when the indefatigably cheerful Poppy (Sally Hawkins) can't even get a hello out of a surly bookstore clerk, that she will repeatedly encounter one dour member of the human race after another until her entire worldview is put to the test.
The scenes don't flow seamlessly either, like Altman at his best. Watching Leigh's films, I'm always aware of the strings being pulled. A flamenco dancer's histrionics during a class strain credulity. A handsome social worker (Samuel Roukin) shows up less for a child abuse subplot than to help Poppy get laid. The schema works most effectively in the escalating battle of wills between Poppy and a driving instructor who hates the world. As the latter, Eddie Marsan is saddled with some overwrought cliches (nobody can just be angry in Leigh's world; they have to be racist and evangelical too); yet the actor is marvelous at conveying several emotions at once. Even when he finally, terrifyingly lashes out, he still somehow earns a measure of sympathy.
Problem is, the set-up to this climax lacks a step or two to make it plausible. (Compare it to how well Altman prepares you for Chris Penn's horrific burst of violence at the end of Short Cuts.) And while Hawkins radiates energy and decency in the lead, she can't make Poppy completely credible either. "Happy people" may lead better and healthier lives (a common claim of which I'm skeptical), but from what I have seen they don't own a monopoly on happiness. Coming from others less upbeat, the emotion might even mean more. It was only a week ago in this country that numerous cynics like myself were reduced to tears of joy. However lasting or temporary the feeling might be, it's living proof that nobody is any one thing.