This is the new world order. Any movie that wants to be seen as Serious, however delusional it may be, wants to enter the Oscar race, and therefore wants to make its entrance in the last three months of the year, when it won’t already have been released on DVD, won’t already have been forgotten. As a result, the critic, all through the fourth quarter, is unabatingly up to his eyeballs in Serious and Would-Be Serious movies and hasn’t the time to dispense justice. The problem is compounded if the critic then takes off for a week of use-it-or-lose-it vacation time. He will now be above his eyeballs and over his head in the Serious and Would-Be Serious.
It was only a matter of luck and timing, both bad, that Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, one of the year’s essential films, would open in my absence. How nice it would have been to have had it land in my lap when I had nothing more urgent to deal with than Hancock or You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. This is, to get right down to it, a character portrait of a singular person, a primary-school teacher called Poppy, almost dementedly upbeat, seeing it as her mission in life to spread sunshine and joy wherever she goes. A tipsy giggler, a babbling fount of inanities (“Here we go, gigolo”), a constant commenter (“Never been here before,” she announces to no one in particular on her tour of a bookshop; “Don’t want to go there,” she reacts upon pulling The Road to Reality off the shelf; “I like your hat,” she volunteers to the tight-lipped proprietor), an avocational clown, a tireless self-amuser, she’s the nearest thing to Pee-wee Herman you could ever hope to find in a realistic context. (Is it significant that her beloved bicycle gets stolen right off the bat? Unlike Pee-wee, she sighingly lets it go — “I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye” — and signs up for driving lessons.) The context, however, demands that she once in a while drop the good cheer in order to handle crises with her ranting, racist, rigid driving instructor (“It’s not easy being you, ay?”), a violent bully at school, and an addled tramp in the street. She is not a one-note character. She can rise to the occasion, and there is always, even at the best of times, an underpinning of thin ice. It is a portrait painted in finest detail and subtlest shades.
Sally Hawkins, who had worked with Leigh before in Vera Drake and All or Nothing, takes total possession of the role, or vice versa, indelibly visualized in a neo- or retro-Flower Child wardrobe, too youthful by a decade, too loud by a hundred decibels, of clashing colors and multiple layers (a last layer, revealed on the chiropractor’s table, of pink bra and orange panties beneath black fishnet hose), and a full range of mirth from lopsided grin, pulling to the right, to open-wide glee. All in all, she stands as one of the towering heroines of modern cinema, maybe an inch or two short of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, but more than level with Ghost World’s Enid or the title character of the aforementioned Vera Drake. Leigh himself, you might have noticed, especially if you saw either of the samples mentioned at the top of this paragraph, is not the jolliest sort of fellow (even titles like Life Is Sweet, High Hopes, Home Sweet Home, and Nuts in May are not to be taken at face value), and it would be easy to imagine him making a movie in which the central character were the volcanic driving instructor — the stalwart Eddie Marsan, who also appeared in Vera Drake — and in which the bubbly driving student were only one of several supporting characters, a movie, that is to say, more like his Naked, a portrait of a negativist.
Any viewer less effervescent than Poppy, in any event, will be inclined to look at her as a kind of scientific specimen, to be observed with curiosity and wonder — along with unscientific amusement and a silent prayer of thanks she’s not living next door or coming over for dinner — in a somewhat amorphous and arbitrary succession of scenes, situations, circumstances. Among the most fruitful of these, after her periodic driving lessons, are a flamenco class under an authentically hot-blooded instructor, one of those awful family get-togethers at which Leigh excels, and the ongoing physical intimacies between Poppy and her same-sex heterosexual roommate, Alexis Zegerman. At all times the movie boasts beautiful bright color, rather as if Leigh’s regular cameraman, Dick Pope, had emptied a bottle of Windex on our window on the world. (Ah, we can see!) And please don’t try to tell me that this is meant to be expressive of Poppy’s Weltanschauung. Clear bright colors ought not to be the exclusive privilege of the Pollyanna.
To attempt to keep things in proper proportion: W., pronounced “dubya,” is emphatically not to be taken seriously. Oliver Stone’s diplomatic biopic on our forty-third President (Josh Brolin, a dead-on impression, but where to go with it?) is so careful to avoid bias as to avoid purpose. It barely matches the caliber of a TV docudrama, much less the compensating snickers. In that department, Thandie Newton as Condi Rice takes the cake. Max Payne, out-of-season summer fare, is a steroidal cop film (literally, pharmaceutical performance-enhancement to a science-fictional degree) featuring dark shadows, leeched color, CG hallucinations, and Mark Wahlberg’s frown lines. I’ve Loved You So Long, a first film by French novelist Philippe Claudel, about a genteel parolee who moves in temporarily with her younger sister and in-laws, is leisurely, patient, closely observed, committedly acted (Kristin Scott Thomas, with dark circles around her eyes, and Elsa Zylberstein), drably photographed, and passably absorbing, at least until it dissipates into heart-tugging hokery. The self-explanatory Zack and Miri Make a Porno, starring Seth Rogen (our reigning Everyslob) and Elizabeth Banks, is a Kevin Smith film of incessant dirty-talk, a bit of dirty-do, and a splatter of dirty-doo-doo. It is strictly for those sufficiently sheltered that they’re able to find it daring and sophisticated.