Toronto 08 — Day 7 capsules (part 1)
(Because Day 7’s six capsules included the two longest and most involved by far, I decided to break the day into two parts for blog readability’s sake.)
HAPPY GO-LUCKY (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2008) — 8
Very early on, central character “Poppy” gets the ultimate symbol of cinematic misery imposed on her — her bicycle is stolen. But her only visible reaction is to make Italian lemonade, saying she “didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to it.” And the title sequence — both in its choice of music and its frame-shifting strategies — put me in mind of one of those Doris Day romantic comedies from the early-60s. So, Sally Hawkins as the titular HG-L High-On-Life heroine Poppy is a bit of a “dafty” or a “doo-lally-sally” who speaks without thinking (a type I was quite familiar with among working-class Britons). Mike says his reaction was repulsion at her relentless chipperness followed by an exercise in Leigh chastising his audience for being so repulsed. I had the almost perfectly 180-degree reaction — that we don’t find her offputting so much as unrealistic and un-grown-up (more on all that shortly), and that the film is about pushing her to the point where she finally has to … I will speak vaguely … use force, impose herself and act like an adult.
The central relationship in the film turns out to be between Poppy and her driving instructor Scott, played by Eddie Marsan, and I think one’s reaction to HAPPY GO-LUCKY turns on how one reacts to this character. Four or five lengthy scenes in this episodic movie involving Poppy and him in the car. Scott is a boor in many respects, and by the end he’s completely gone off the rails, partially as a result of starting to fall in love with Poppy, who represents everything he detests. But mixed in with some of the bizarre rants (my favorite involved tinfoil-hat talk about the height of the Washington Monument), he says some uncomfortably true things about Poppy — the only character in HAPPY GO-LUCKY to do so, in fact: “all I ask is that you behave like an adult,” he rants at her after one of her do-lally jokes while driving. And by the end of HAPPY GO-LUCKY, Poppy has had to use force and threat against him, had to act in the “toughlove” way the therapeutic society rejects as patriarchal violence. I think Leigh has made a movie about the damage from the collapse of patriarchy (though as I acknowledged to Mike in a personal discussion, if he did so, he did so almost certainly inadvertantly). There is a discussion involving Poppy and her girlfriends in which they note there are no good men around, or if they are they’re hiding or “haven’t got the balls” to appear. And indeed, there is not an attractively effectual male in this movie — Marsan’s anger representing pre-therapy masculinity in a post-therapy world; Poppy’s brother-in-law, a childlike father-to-be who seeks or subverts his wife’s permission to play video games; Popp’s pupil who bullies the other kids because he’s abused at home by his mother’s live-in boyfriend; that (offscreen) boyfriend, who is not the child’s father, natch; the (offscreen) lover of the flamenco dancer. The only possibly attractive male character is Poppy’s late-acquired boyfriend Tim. The problem dramatically is that Samuel Roukin’s performance and/or Leigh’s conception of the character, while not bad per se, is utterly bland and uninteresting in the presence of dynamos like Scott and Poppy. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY is a (kind of) romantic triangle, but with one iddy-biddy teeny-tiny leg (imagine a HIS GIRL FRIDAY in which Ralph Bellamy gets Roz Russell — only more so). On the other hand, if Tim is intended to represent a “happy ending” in this respect, then Leigh also badly miscalculated the ideas he was playing with. To put it simply and crudely, if traditional masculinity has collapsed, then a social worker who fornicates on the first date is only more of the same.
But there are flaws in this generally great film (I haven’t even mentioned the funniest scene — involving Poppy’s taking flamenco lessons from a dance instructor who really gets INTO the dance’s emotions), and they are Leigh returning to his some of the tics that drag down even his best films. After making the best-acted film of his career in VERA DRAKE, the one-scene really-overcooked wtf? performance makes its return — a rambling homeless man in this case, joining the guy who never opened his eyes in CAREER GIRLS at head of the Hall of Shame. And the anti-climactic coda that half-heartedly reconciles the last scene with the status quo antebellum (think LIFE IS SWEET, ALL OR NOTHING or SECRETS AND LIES) also makes a comeback. And while I think Marsan’s performance is brilliant, I well understand that some sane people (see Mike above but also Michael Sicinski) see the performance as way over-the-top. Which it is in a way, but does not account for how carefully it builds from one week’s lesson to the next, as his own motivation shifts. We’re seeing the all-heterosexual version of Gay Panic on display here, and subtlety is not what’s called for.
A CHRISTMAS TALE (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008) — 8
The actual title for this film could just as easily and accurately be translated “A Christmas Story,” but anybody who expects anything resembling Ralphie’s boyhood memories will be disappointed. This is the family gathering from hell. A passive-aggressive (but not too passive) matriarch with an anti-Semitic streak¹ to boot is dying of some form of cancer that requires a transplant, and the only compatible donor in the family is the semi-estranged son, until one of her grandchildren turns out to be compatible, too. That grandchild is of course the son of another sibling, a woman who despises her mom-compatible-in-this-way-only brother, and this is both a literal bone of contention and a metaphor for all the bones strewn about this graveyard of a family (and one of the most important characters in this family dynamic is in a literal graveyard.) There are other family members gathering for the Christmas reunion, all of whom resent the other family members (or hate one or two in particular), and lots of brittle bitchiness ensues. A CHRISTMAS TALE is enormously entertaining along those lines, like ALL ABOUT EVE or something by Baumbach or Stillman. But what keeps A CHRISTMAS TALE from greatness, though it is my favorite Desplechin so far and is superb in every aspect of execution, is that this is a family that fundamentally is happy in its unhappiness. It doesn’t really feel like much is at stake, as all the characters are content to go through their motions, having found their bitchiness groove. The punches don’t land or are soft, in other words. Leigh makes many more mistakes in HGL than Desplechin does, but despite the same 8-grade, I found his film more vital and intellectually arresting. And one late plot point is literally straight out of ST. ELMO’S FIRE and the reaction of [Ally Sheedy] is, though different here, scarcely more believable.
But this review is already sounding too negative, so let me backtrack to “superb in every aspect of execution.” Desplechin gives the film an elegiac feel with faded pictures and such old-time devices as iris shots, and with choices of details like a harpsichord on the score during a key make-out scene. He uses extra-cinematic devices like (1) family members reading letters to one another to the camera, as if they’re pleading for others (i.e., us) to side with them in family quarrels; (2) having the kids stage a Zorro play, during which every cut to the other family members in the audience draws blood; and most memorably (3) revealing the family backstory via a puppet show. And Desplechin may be inviting us to take a jaundiced view of the very “family reunion haunted by ghosts from the past” genre and narrative, through a character reading aloud from the preface of Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals,” to the effect that seeking after oneself can get in the way of genuine knowledge (though Nietzsche was speaking of “we knowers,” which it’s not clear that anyone in A CHRISTMAS TALE or its audience would be).
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Danny Boyle, Britain/India, 2008) — 4
I dropped a couple of films (neither of which I was terribly interested in) for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE based on strong buzz from Telluride — and what a crushing disappointment, made more crushing in recent days by this film’s winning the Audience Favorite Award (since Toronto is not a juried fest, this is its biggest prize). The central character is poor Bombay slum kid Jamal, who manages to reach the final question on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” leading to suspicion he cheated. The movie cuts between his life story and that TV episode, which each biography chapter explaining how he came into possession of a certain bit of knowledge that enabled him to answer a Millionaire question. Of course, once you’re aware of this gimmick, the film becomes as predictable as a litany and about as entertaining. In fact … it’s worse. Lots of films begin with their conclusions, but (often) in order to lead us along a journey that is the real point of the picture. In the best such cases (my first viewing of SUNSET BOULEVARD), we even forget we’re watching flashbacks to a conclusion we already know. But the structure in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE spoils even that possibility, because every sequence along the way has to lead us back to the end, intermittently throughout. There are absurdities aplenty in the appearances and reapparances of The Girl and in the film’s never actually explaining HOW he got on the show in the first place (particularly if he is as uneducated as portrayed). Even as a picaresque, Jamal’s life story is absurdly … well … representative, as if Jamal is supposedly a cross-section signifier embodying everything important about India. His experience covers Bollywood, anti-Muslim pogroms, working at a call center, the Taj Mahal (though Agra is more than 700 miles from Bombay). And the final scenes had me spitting contempt at the screen — not because it ends happily (nobody could expect otherwise) but because, (1) I knew what the question would be right from the beginning of the film when it first comes up (and it is not believable that *this* question would be the final question on Millionaire; it’s at pre-32,000 level, even for India); (2) the plot twist that allows Jamal to answer the next-to-last question is completely, no-way-no-how-Im-buying-it unbelievable, and (3) even if it were to be the case, “Regis” would know better than to act as he does onscreen. It’s pure writerly contrivance from beginning to end. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE begins with the four-choice question something like “how did he get this far on MILLIONAIRE — he cheated, he was lucky, he was a genius, or it was written.” The answer the film gives us at the end is D, which is certainly true, but not quite in the sense that I think the film meant.
¹ Linguistic aside question #1: For anybody who speaks French — was “my little Jew” ever the ordinary French term for the elbow phenomenon we call a “funny bone” in English?