Happy-Go-Lucky

Happy-Go-Lucky movie poster

 

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a creature rarely encountered in movies and even less in real life: someone genuinely happy. She’s not bothered by others’ life goals; at 30, she doesn’t have a baby or a boyfriend, own a house, or know how to drive. Relentlessly chipper, upbeat, and outgoing, she’s best friends with her roommate (a true rarity!) and has already found the career possibly most suited for her (she’s a gifted, compassionate primary school teacher). Her one vanity seems to be that she’s proud of her legs.

In conversation, Poppy always finds a way to agree with almost anything anyone says. We first meet her chattering away at a sullen bookstore clerk. Having seen Hawkins interviewed around the time of her Oscar nomination, it’s all the more apparent she’s affecting a Catherine Tate impression for the movie. Like Tate, Poppy just barely skirts the edge of being annoying to the audience as well, which considering the reactions Poppy provokes from certain other characters later in the film, probably says more about me than it does her. Poppy’s other major strategy in life is to find a new opportunity in every setback. A back injury sends her giggling all the way onto an exciting adventure to a chiropractor. Having her bicycle stolen provides another opening for a new experience: driving lessons.

happy_go_lucky_2.jpgYou’re driving me mad! See what I did there? No? Too easy?

Unfortunately for them both, her new tutor is the unstable, ferociously angry Scott (Eddie Marsan). Just a few of Scott’s many neuroses include racism, homophobia, religious fervor, and conspiracy theories. His most paranoid rant (regarding the Washington Monument supposedly being 666 feet tall – apparently a rumor stemming from the misreported height of its foundation) echoes those of the similarly damaged Johnny (David Thewlis) from Mike Leigh’s excellent Naked (1993). Is Marsan the most versatile actor ever? He’s played everything from a sweet-natured man almost paralyzed by shyness in Leigh’s Vera Drake, to a tough preacher in 21 Grams, to a ruthless criminal who keeps losing extremities in Hancock. Yes, Hancock.

Most narratives are usually structured around a protagonist’s problem. How do you tell a story about someone that has no problems? Happy-Go-Lucky defied my expectations that the story would go one of three ways:

  1. Poppy’s happy-go-lucky attitude is a defense mechanism masking an inner sadness. Events conspire that force her to confront and defeat her inner demons. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture a young Julia Roberts.
  2. Poppy confronts a huge tragedy that nearly breaks her spirit. She overcomes the obstacle. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
  3. Poppy meets someone deeply sad and unhappy, her polar opposite. She fixes this broken person with the power of her indomitable spirit. Everyone cries, then laughs. Happy ending. Picture Robin Williams helping Jeff Bridges heal in Fisher King (although it may seem like I’m mocking it here, Terry Gilliam and Richard LaGravenese’s Fisher King is actually one of my favorite movies).

happy_go_lucky_1.jpglatitude, longitude, positive attitude

While Poppy’s happiness is totally genuine, she is not deranged. She does not deny that problems and sadness exist in the world and in other people’s lives. Nor does she believe that anyone else can simply shrug off their setbacks, depression, or inner demons. The above scenario to which Happy-Go-Lucky comes closest is the third. Scott and one of Poppy’s sisters are as sad and messed up as she is happy. She tries to help, but recognizes she is unable to fix them. The truly sad realization for the audience at the end is that we see that Poppy knows she must keep her distance from her sister and stop trying to befriend Scott. Her mere presence in their lives drives them crazy.


Official movie site: happygoluckythemovie.com

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O Lucky Man!

O Lucky Man!

 

Over the course of its truly epic length of 177 minutes, Lindsay Anderson‘s O Lucky Man! (1973) picks up the continuing saga of Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) from If… (1968; read The Dork Report Review). While If…. used a British public school as a metaphorical microcosm with which to satirize British class culture, O Lucky Man! widens its lens to take in all of England for its bleak portrait of capitalism triumphant. Travis appears to have matured out of his schoolboy fantasy of perpetrating a school massacre and has since joined the corporate world. Because of McDowell’s inherently impish persona, one might not expect his character here to be sincere, but Travis is now ruthless and genuinely willing to endure anything to climb the ladder of profit and social advancement. Early on, he is urged by a senior colleague to “try not to die like a dog,” but it’s a warning he is never equipped to quite comprehend.

O Lucky Man!When do we live?

His journey is so long and involved that it would hardly count as a spoiler to recount it here: Travis is promoted from the lowest rung on the corporate ladder all the way up to a high-level mission set up to fail. As he is ordered around the English countryside by his officebound superiors, he becomes lost on the way to Scotland, is arrested and tortured by the army, survives a military strike by an unseen enemy, stumbles into an idyll, is nursed back to health (er, literally), donates his body to medical research, falls in with Alan Price‘s touring band (including groupie Patricia (Helen Mirren)), talks his way into the employ of the most venal businessman in England after his previous assistant’s timely suicide (a prime example of Travis’ alleged “luck”), becomes party to illegal chemical weapons sales in a corporate-funded civil war in a third-world nation, takes the fall for his boss, is imprisoned to five years of hard labor, is evidently reformed, tries and fails to talk a poor woman out of suicide with a hilarious litany of trite platitudes, is robbed and becomes homeless, tries to proselytize like Jesus and is, finally and fittingly, stoned by his peers. But in the the end, he is discovered as a future movie star.

O Lucky Man!So long and thanks for the milk

An early form of David Sherwin’s script was written by McDowell himself, based on his own experiences as a coffee salesman. I think it’s fair to presume that the beginning and ending are drawn directly from McDowell’s life story. At opposite ends of the film, the fortunate Travis is chosen from the masses for higher callings. The young man at the beginning is all too eager to commence his journey, but the beaten-down and disillusioned man at the end is no longer able to take any pleasure out of his unlucky luck.


Must read: everything you could possibly want to know about O Lucky Man, from MalcolmMcDowell.net

Official movie site: www.lindsayanderson.com/o_lucky_man.html

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

If….

If....

 

If…. is the first in director Lindsay Anderson’s trilogy of films featuring Malcolm McDowell as the Mick Travis, whose misadventures continue in O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital. Everything I read about the trilogy repeats the same word to descibe Travis: “everyman.” On the evidence, I take this to mean Travis is a blank slate, a shapeless person pushed and molded by the forces of society about him. If…. begins with the epigram “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom; and with all thy getting, get understanding” from The Book of Proverbs, but an even better statement of the film’s themes is spoken my Travis himself: “When do we live? That’s what I want to know.”

The initially realistic portrayal of life at a British public school, filmed at Cheltenham College but referred to simply as “College”, includes frank depictions of the corporal punishment and homosexuality (mostly repressed but in one case, genuine young love). The pupils’ lives are so regimented and ordered that even virtuous activities such as studying are forbidden if not conducted at the proper time and place. Most of the rampant cruelty and capriciousness comes from Whips (the senior class, with privileges) and is sanctioned, or rather, willfully ignored by the aloof adult faculty. It becomes clear the school is satirical microcosm of the British class society: a self-perpetuating system in which the young underclassmen “Scum” eventually grow into the roles of the oppressors.

If....I think I’ll call you Mini-Malcolm

Much of the students’ time is preoccupied with paramilitary war games couched in religion. As the school chaplain admonishes them, “Jesus is your commanding officer.” The sermon also instructs that desertion is the worst wartime crime, and as all Christians are born with original sin, all are likewise deserters. During one war game, Travis and friends deliberately shoot live rounds at their own comrades. Curiously, the headmaster mildly scolds them as if they had committed an infraction as naughty as nipping at the communal wine. But the first irrefutable instance of the film’s turn towards surreality is when the headmaster produces a faculty member from within a cupboard drawer for whom Travis to apologize.

From this point on, it is clear at least some of Travis’ experiences are fantasy. And what do teenage boys fantasize about but hooking up with hot girls and violently lashing out at enemies? He beds a beautiful waitress (Christine Noonan) in a violently animalistic coupling, who might very well be another figment of his imagination. Together they uncover a cache of weapons and pickled medical anomalies in the school basement (his subconscious?), including a grotesque human fetus. Travis’ anarchic adolescent fantasies climax with a massive school shooting during a nauseatingly patriotic festival honoring The Crusades. Unlike the considerably more tragic school shootings typical to films made in an era of actual teen massacres like Columbine (in films as diverse as Elephant, Empire Falls, and The Basketball Diaries), Travis’ war is a comically carnivalesque affair and the consequences fall offscreen.

If....Mmmf mmmmf mmff mmmmfff….

Miscellany:

• The otherwise spiffy Criterion Collection DVD edition appears to be a censored cut, not the X-rated full version originally screened in some parts of the world.

• The assistant director was Steven Frears, who went on to direct Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, and The Queen. In the Criterion DVD bonus features, Frears states that If…. was filmed at the same time as the Paris Riots in 1968, lending powerful immediacy to the theme of violent student rebellion.

• The film alternates between black & white and color film stock. There are conflicting explanations according to Wikipedia, but the primary motivations seemed to have been that of budget and time (black & white film taking less time to light for). Anderson, however, liked the “texture” and continued to use the device. It is apparently not to be understood to delineate reality vs. fantasy.

• Mick repeatedly plays the music “Sanctus” from Missa Luba, an African-tinged version of the Latin Mass. Difficult for modern ears to believe, but it was a hit single at the time. (also from Wikipedia)

• Full of interesting tidbits, Wikipedia also cites a visual allusion to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger in McDowell’s first appearance, showcasing his instantly recognizable eyes.


Must read: everything you could possibly want to know about If…. from MalcolmMcDowell.net

Official movie site: www.lindsayanderson.com/if.html

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.