God save the happy

Although they’ve both come to our shores from Britain, Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” and Guy Ritchie’s “RocknRolla” could not be more different from one another. One is a quiet chronicle of the life of a working-class woman, and one is a loud, hard sprawl through London’s gangster scene. More importantly, one is terrific and one is terrible.

“RocknRolla” adds essential insight into Ritchie’s recent divorce from Madonna. It seems likely that she took one look at the mess her husband had made and fled instantly. The lady’s got good judgment. I practically had to nail myself to the seat to avoid walking out.

Ritchie is returning to the same blokes-with-guns template he has worked off of throughout his career, with severely diminishing returns. “RocknRolla” suffers from an acute case of stylistic schizophrenia, a hateful attitude towards gay people, a dismissive attitude towards women, and a boatload of talented actors mugging their way through idiotic plot sequences.

The London of “RocknRolla” is a zoo of rapacious capitalism, where crooks and gangsters scurry through the City (London’s Wall Street) and the city, robbing, killing and conning. It’s a place where all the prices, as we are told repeatedly, are going up. (Too bad it hit the screen just as Britain plunged into what is likely to be a deep recession, where the skyscrapers it drools over are filled with newly impoverished workers.) Most of the action is driven by a convoluted business scheme and a bunch of stolen cash. There’s a crack-addled rock star, a curvy accountant and an endless array of thugs with thick accents and colorful names. Very few of them register.

Ritchie is less concerned with making a plot we haven’t seen many times before — especially in films he’s made —than with throwing his usual bag of flash at us. He tries so many tricks that the film drowns in them: playing with slow motion, or blurring the images, or having words appear in boxes onscreen, or shaking the camera, or pointing it in strange directions. There winds up being nothing worth looking at, since the film is passionless and nihilistic, with little regard for its characters except as snazzy archetypes for Ritchie to play with.

There is about one good minute in “RocknRolla.” In it, Thandie Newton and Gerard Butler shimmy to a shiny 80s beat. It’s loosey-goosey, sexy and fun — three things that cannot be said about the 113 remaining minutes of this grim affair. At the end, we are informed that all the characters are set to return in a sequel. God help us.

I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to Mike Leigh’s entirely different—and entirely better—“Happy-Go-Lucky,” a film with such warmth of spirit and unabashed love for its characters that it more than lives up to its title.

“Happy-Go-Lucky” focuses on working-class women in the working-class parts of London — a welcome relief from the tired misogyny of “RocknRolla.” This in itself marks a radical and welcome departure from many films, and certainly most American films, which usually treat women as accessories. Anchored by a performance of uninhibited joy from the lovely Sally Hawkins, “Happy-Go-Lucky” rambles along quietly and calmly, but it taps into the beauty and pleasure of everyday life like no recent film I can recall. There are no major crises in this film and no villains, but “Happy-Go-Lucky” holds our interest completely. Hawkins plays Poppy, a schoolteacher and unashamed optimist. It’s almost startling how little fazes her: in the first scene, her bike is stolen and a bookstore clerk won’t so much as speak to her, but she never stops smiling and chatting at him, and immediately signs up for driving lessons with the half-crazed, religious fanatic and xenophobe Scott (Eddie Marsan). Their weekly interactions provide the main tension in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” as Scott unravels more and more in the face of Poppy’s impermeable charm. In between, we see episodes from Poppy’s daily life. She teaches little kids, drinks with her friends, takes flamenco lessons and starts up a relationship with her school’s cute social worker. Poppy is maddeningly content with her life and, in a performance less sure of itself, might come off as annoying. But Hawkins makes her a fully realized, believable character: bawdy, funny, sweet and adventurous. She has a natural chemistry with almost everyone playing against her, especially Alexis Zengerman, who plays her slightly more world-weary roommate Zoe.

Leigh is working from a much brighter place than his last film, the exceedingly grim “Vera Drake.” He has an ear for the rhythms of real conversation and an eye for the natural charisma of London’s more unsung vistas. “Happy-Go-Lucky” is grounded in community and turns the ups and downs of our lives into something wonderful. While I left “RocknRolla” depressed, I left “Happy-Go-Lucky” elated. It is a film to treasure.

Comments

  • Just Me

    I couldn't disagree more about your assessment of RocknRolla. The movie was was so much fun. I saw it 7 times and in each showing the audience had a great time with everyone laughing in all the right places. Frankly I hope the sequal gets made.

  • Isidore Feinstein

    A wonderful review, Mr. Mirkinson. Your writing is a consistent delight.