Grin and Bear It

Happy-Go-Lucky hooks us on Poppy. Body of Lies sells us pre-owned violence.

Even before its theatrical release, Mike Leigh’s flavorful comic character study Happy-Go-Lucky was already kindling debate among critics and preview audiences as it made its way through the film festival circuit. The question: How can Poppy, actor Sally Hawkins’ unstoppably upbeat main character, be for real?

Evidently some viewers find Poppy’s relentless cheerfulness irritating, while others bask in her warm, although occasionally goofy, demeanor. Poppy is the sort of person who, when her bicycle gets stolen on the street, shrugs it off and smiles wistfully, then bounces on toward another situation undeterred, in fact grinning like an idiot. But a remarkably attractive, life-affirming idiot. Her insistent optimism causes us to dust off a pile of seldom-used adjectives — chipper, plucky, sunny, wholesome, giddy, bubbly, happy-go-lucky — words that hark back to a more forgiving time.

Poppy is a thirty-year-old primary schoolteacher who lives with a roommate, another single female named Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), in the Finsbury Park neighborhood of North London — Arsenal football club territory. When she’s not minding her classroom of cute tykes or devising bird costumes for them at home, Poppy enjoys hitting the pubs and rock concerts with her sister Suzy (Kate O’Flynn) and Zoe, always on the prowl for available males. Whenever a man’s name comes up, she invariably asks: “Is he fit?” If Poppy’s in-your-face merriness is indeed a facade masking some unseen malady, perhaps it’s loneliness.

Poppy’s irresistible force is bound to meet an immovable object eventually, especially if she’s the product of writer-director Leigh’s renowned “devised screenplay” method of film preparation, in which he and the actors painstakingly workshop all the characters and situations on the road to his writing the script. Our full introduction to Poppy comes when she parks that bicycle and saunters into a bookshop. The clerk is a typical dour, self-absorbed guy who plainly doesn’t want to talk to anyone about anything, and Poppy, being Poppy, pesters him with chirpy small talk (“Blimey O’Riley!”) until she finally takes the hint and exits stage right in a hail of Cockney banter. It’s hard to say who’s more off-putting — the dull grouch behind the counter or the chatty, batty chick. She is a sweet soul, this one, but plainly not a simple soul.

In fact, Poppy is only the latest in a string of similar Leigh characters whose aggressive manners peel away to reveal a yearning, insecure inner person — maximum intensity fronting vulnerability. David Thewlis’ Johnny in Naked is a notable example, as is Nicola, the nasty plumber played by Jane Horrocks in Life Is Sweet. The best of Leigh’s devised personae, his salt of the earth, are ordinary people who persevere through the muck, whether it’s performing abortions for poor women (Vera Drake) or earning a living in an office (the late Katrin Cartlidge in Career Girls) or slapping together a chips van (Life Is Sweet again) or being priced out of the old neighborhood (High Hopes) or simply waiting on the living room couch for the dole (Meantime). Poppy has it pretty good compared to many Leigh protagonists. No wonder she’s in such a bright mood.

The one person in Poppy’s sphere who threatens to derail her train to Happyville is Scott (Eddie Marsan), the driving instructor she hires to give her lessons every Saturday. Sad-faced actor Marsan played Reg, morose boyfriend of the equally morose daughter in Vera Drake, but Scott is a different breed — maybe he’s the same character baked harder by sixty years of urban life in the UK. Bitter, growly, and short-tempered where Poppy is scatterbrained, their frantic time behind the wheel is the heart of the film. Scott rails against “the disease of multiculturalism” and snipes at Poppy’s tardiness. She can’t seem to focus on Scott’s dogmatic step-by-step instructions and wonders why he’s so pissed off (“It’s not easy being you, is it, eh?”). Then one day he explodes, and suddenly he’s like one of her kids, a naughty boy to be straightened out.

Leigh, of course, is one of the most humane filmmakers on Earth. As a creator of subtle, beguiling comedies of manners that explain the everyday mysteries of life for beginners — meaning everyone of us — he’s in a class with Eric Rohmer and Jean Renoir. His Englishness is a given but his observations are universal. Happy-Go-Lucky, in the Leigh tradition, may be a slightly ironic title, but any ironies hovering around Poppy are gently laid to rest in the arms of love. Poppy is an innocent. You just want to protect her, from the world, from everything, but really she’s much stronger than you are.

By contrast, Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe, in deep character), the two CIA agent protagonists of Ridley Scott’s routine actioner Body of Lies, are not very happy. Too much trouble in the world, as Hoffman’s voiceover intro explains, especially in the Middle East, where the bad guys have made us do bad things even though we’re really good guys at heart.

The faintly Bushian/Palinian rationale behind Ferris’ violent antics in various countries over there — actually shot in Morocco, every filmmakers’ go-to Arab location destination — comes courtesy of William (The Departed) Monahan’s screenplay, taken from the novel by David Ignatius, a conservative op-ed columnist for the Washington Post. It has none of the sweep of, say, Syriana, as if that mattered to the audience it’s gunning for.

Athletic grunt Ferris lies, executes rogue ops, raids Al Qaeda hideouts, drives his car through the nutty Arab streets, makes deals with scoundrels, gets his knuckles broken by a hammer and his calves torn by dogs, and falls in love with a fetching Iranian nurse played by Golshifteh Farahani, who was in Bab’Aziz. Ferris’ boss Hoffman, a shambling, Southern-accented, frequent mispronouncer and soccer dad who usually stays back in Langley, mostly just lies. Their buddy-buddy horseplay, an uninspired variation on the hoary old-cop/young-cop motif, is easily upstaged by English actor Mark Strong as the nefarious-but-charming power behind the Jordanian throne (!). His tailor should get an Oscar.

At this stage of his career, director Scott presumably can make any movie he wants to. Why he chose this mock-sophisticated spyboiler is a subject better left to the trade papers, but be warned — for every wince-producing DiCaprio battle wound there’s bound to be a wince of omission directed at Crowe’s all-seeing, all-knowing, spy-in-the-sky super-spook. The Hoffman character never gets properly developed, but he’s the more interesting of the two, the puller of strings who quotes Sammy Snead instead of the Qur’an.

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