Happy and Then Some

Photo: Simon Mein/Courtesy of Miramax Films

Beneath the everyday, scattershot surface of Mike Leigh’s newest marvel, Happy-Go-Lucky, is a classic theme: the survival of enchantment in a hostile world. (Examples range from the aptly named Disney musical Enchantment to the Bozo-Goes-to-Buchenwald saga Life is Beautiful.) Leigh is a lefty social realist with a fondness for satire and larky heroines, and here he has a dream of a protagonist: Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a London schoolteacher who skips blithely through an indifferent universe (full of kindness and malevolence in roughly equal measure), refusing to be hobbled by setbacks. Although there’s much bustle in the margins, the spine of the film is a series of driving lessons with an instructor named Scott (Eddie Marsan), a cauldron of bile who’s driven, so to speak, to the edge of madness by his simultaneous attraction to this woman and antipathy toward her worldview. The question hangs: Will the ugliness finally pop Poppy’s bubble?

The deeper question is whether Poppy is fatuously oblivious—in denial. She does register misfortune, if oh so briefly. Absent, however, is blame, of others and herself. In a bookstore, she attempts to engage the young man at the register (“An oasis of calm in here!”), tries again when he fails to respond, and finally gives up with a sigh. She might have concluded he’s a jerk. She might have concluded she’s not sufficiently attractive. (She is slim and cute, with a mouthful of big English teeth, but no beauty—and her garrulousness could be an irritant.) Instead, she shrugs the encounter off, as if to say, Oh, well. Someone’s having a bad day. When she emerges from the store to find her bike has been stolen, she has a moment of sadness (she didn’t get to say good-bye to it), then decides it’s time to learn to drive.

You can imagine Leigh—famous for building his screenplays through actors’ tightly focused improvisations—laughing at the prospect of Hawkins’s Poppy and Marsan’s Scott confined to the front seat of a car. Marsan has a head too big for his smallish body and the face of a soulful gargoyle. He could probably play lovable, like the late Bruno Kirby, but his face hardens where Kirby’s went doughboy-soft. The interaction between the bullying control freak and the giggly chatterbox who responds to his barking orders with tongue-in-cheek exclamations of obedience is at first hilarious; then hilarious with dissonant notes; then, later, unnerving bordering on terrifying. Scott’s sudden vulnerability doesn’t lead to his loosening up, as in screwball comedies. The very notion of freedom—personal, cultural, political—threatens his self-esteem.

Leigh has been giving actors their tongues for decades, and of all his films, Happy-Go-Lucky is the easiest, the least labored. As Poppy is tested (not just by Scott but by other intrusions of cruelty), we begin to see that this is not a life of whimsy but a design for living that’s deep and hard-won. Hawkins is so effervescent that after the film ended, I worried about her—it must have been sad to have to leave Poppy behind. I’d like to think Poppy will never go away, that we all can cultivate our inner Poppys.

Bill Maher might well be a flaming asshole, but more often than not the flame burns brilliantly, and his documentary-demolition job Religulous has an unholy fervor that should start many bonfires. Maher’s thesis, articulated at the outset from the spot in the Israeli desert where the world (according to Revelation) is supposed to end, is blunt: “Religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity.” Maher’s is no big tent: Believers, he says, have been sold “an invisible product”—the uses of which are often selfish and murderous. He does not know if God exists, but neither do you.

Religulous is directed by Larry Charles, who made Borat, and this movie, too, is a mock odyssey, a series of encounters with the bamboozlers and the bamboozled. A militantly lapsed Catholic (his mother was Jewish), Maher engages with fervent truckers at a makeshift parking-lot chapel, confronts a once-gay minister who works to make gays see the error of their “choice,” and challenges Evangelists on their un-Christ-like flaunting of riches. He is openly aghast at Senator Mark Pryor’s assertion that there’s scientific disagreement over evolution. Using shock cuts to florid religious spectacles (and, in one case, footage of an Islamist suicide bomber), he questions the existence of Jesus and lumps Christianity with Mormonism and Scientology.

I can’t review Religulous without admitting my own allegiances. As a longtime Skeptic magazine subscriber, I think Maher’s call for atheists to come out of the closet and question political leaders who justify their acts as “the will of God” is right-on. But skeptics can be a sniggery bunch. They tend to be libertarians, as rigid in their ways as fundamentalists. At a Skeptics Society conference, I once argued with one over the benefits of ritual (the Sabbath, days of atonement) and the notion of transcendence. “What does that mean?” he said. “Well, the state in which you feel something beyond yourself, a connection—” “What does that mean? You’re not saying anything I understand.” I doubt he’d have settled for anything less than a neurochemical explanation.

My ideal skeptical documentary would explore the idea that aspects of religion might well be adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint—but until that comes along, this will do. Maher doesn’t hang back in the studio and call his subjects dickheads like Penn Jillette in the Showtime series Bullshit! He’s in their faces, letting them have their (lame) say. As he delivered his climactic sermon in the Israeli desert, I murmured, “Amen, brother.” Religulous is a religious experience.

Robert De Niro once immersed himself in his roles to the point of nuttiness; now he cultivates a wry detachment in which dyspepsia substitutes for angst. He still has killer timing, though. His performance in the Hollywood-set comedy What Just Happened?has a wonderful deadpan foolishness. He plays a big-deal producer with professional and personal headaches, including a volcanic star (Bruce Willis, as himself) who refuses to shave a rabbinical beard for a film, and a soon-to-be-ex wife (Robin Wright Penn, blessedly grounded) who won’t take him back. As in many Hollywood satires, there’s no indication whether the projects in question are good enough to justify the histrionics. (It makes a difference.) But Barry Levinson directs snappily, and Art Linson (who wrote the script based on his memoir) nails the Wittgensteinian linguistic complexity of Hollywood-speak, in which truths are elaborately circumnavigated. What Just Happened? is a doodle, but its aura of dread seems earned.

See Also
Q&A With Mike Leigh on His Casting Process and How Much He Hated The Red Balloon

Directed by Mike Leigh.
Miramax Films. R.

Directed by Larry Charles.
LionsGate. R.

What Just Happened
Directed by Barry Levinson.
Magnolia Pictures. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Happy and Then Some