"Happy-Go-Lucky" *** (118 minutes)

Monday October 13, 2008

The comedy genre and famed English writer/director Mike Leigh are not usually synonymous. Used to cutting his chops on such heavy topics as adoption (1996's "Secrets & Lies") and abortion (his most recent film, 2004's wonderful "Vera Drake"), this is territory that we usually don't see Mike traverse. His critical and artistic success can be measured by his 100% critic approval rating for his previous 8 films rated on Rotten Tomatoes. So it is really no surprise that he has hit another winner in this acting tour de force by Sally Hawkins (seem most recently in Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream). I attended a screening at the AFI Silver Theater where I was treated to an extremely entertaining interview and Q & A with the director moderated by Washington Post critic Desson Howe (more on that later). Sally plays Poppy, a, well, happy-go-lucky gal who goes through life with the proverbial blinders-on, letting none of life's downers, disappointments, and tragedies get in her way to distract her from her positivity. Hers is always a glass half full as she is constantly running interference around life's obstacles. We see her M.O. from the start when her initial reaction to her stolen bike (which she gleefully rides through the opening credits) is "Gee, I didn't even have a chance to say goodbye". What really makes this one special are the characters she interacts with along the way. Particular of note is a homeless man played absolutely brilliantly by veteran Irish actor, Stanley Townsend. Most people would run the other way, but Poppy instead delivers a touching connection to the schizophrenic man that speaks volumes as to what makes her tick. Another winning supporting performance is delivered by Irishman, Eddie Marsan, who plays Poppy's driving instructor-whose view of life is diametrically opposite of Poppy's. Although not a laugh riot type of comedy, it is actually geared more to reality-a drama splattered with moments of humor. In the Q & A, Leigh was quizzed as to the degree of improvisation the cast might have used-considering the realism of the dialogue. He stated (as anyone knows who is aware of how he directs), that very little improv is used as the cast puts in nearly 6 months of rehearsals that precede the actual filming. He added that improvisation creates much less usable dialogue than a well rehearsed script and is the reason he puts his actors through the rigid rehearsal paces that are his trademark. All this lends to a unusual naturalness of the acting and makes the finished product seem more like everyday life than one can usually expect. And kudos to a wonderfully giddy, infectious soundtrack by Gary Yershon, who worked on Leigh's 1999 musical, "Topsy-Turvy".

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