The irresistibly named Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a wide-eyed--accentuate the positive--cheerleader of a school teacher with an attitude that says “I want to be your friend.” She is endlessly Happy Go Lucky and even several encounters with those who don’t share her optimistic outlook can’t seem to knock her down. The film doesn’t have a traditional plotline but rather is a series of recurring scenes from her life. After her bike is stolen she decides to take driving lessons from an increasingly frustrated instructor (Eddie Marsan). Their frequent episodes grow more intense each time as the lessons tend to bring out the pent-up anger of the man trying to teach Poppy how to make a left turn. She also takes Flamenco lessons from a loopy Spanish dance instructor (Karina Fernandez) gets romantically involved in an intense relationship with a social worker (Samuel Roukin) spends time with her best pal and roommate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) who provides a soothing counterpoint to Poppy’s non-stop cheerfulness and tries to deal with problems involving her sisters (Kate O'Flynn and Caroline Martin) and brother-in-law (Oliver Maltman).
Leigh is known for an improvisational style of filmmaking spending months working everything out with his actors in rehearsal and then letting them do the scenes with only an outline of what it will be. In this environment actors have to be top notch and indeed Leigh has elicited a few Oscar-nominated performances in the past including Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies and Imelda Staunton in his last film Vera Drake. Add Sally Hawkins to the top tier of actors in Leigh films. She is in nearly every scene and the film lives or dies on her inherent appeal. We are with this irrepressible life force from the very first moment she hits the screen with her rather garish but colorful outfits and unflappable demeanor. Hawkins is a breath of fresh air a real discovery. Also getting lots of screen time is Eddie Marsan as the driving instructor who goes ballistic. His slow simmering rage is fascinating to watch as the dynamic of the student/teacher relationship goes into unexpected--and uncomfortable--territory. Fernanez provides most of the film’s comic relief as the demanding flamenco instructor and her scenes with Hawkins are the film’s highlight. Leigh is a director known for exploring the lives of British working class. His unique films focus generally on those poor blokes and birds just trying to get by and live a life of dignity despite England’s class system. As one of his film titles suggests Mike Leigh characters have High Hopes. But Happy Go Lucky is perhaps his lightest and certainly most optimistic film yet. By focusing an entire feature on a central character who exudes happiness and goodwill toward her fellow man he turns a light also on the problems and hang-ups of people who bounce their woes off her in this oddly segmented film. Leigh’s improv filmmaking techniques work well here but seem less structured and disciplined than usual. The film is too long for its own good and many scenes wear out their welcome halfway in. Still it’s good to have a craftsman with the kind of singular voice Leigh has still able to make movies his way because in this instance at least that has produced the gift of Sally Hawkins.
As the real-life 1950's pin-up girl Bettie Page actress Gretchen Mol shakes her moneymaker in this true-American-story drama. Page a Tennessee-raised religious cutie moves to New York in 1949 for a new life when college dreams don't materialize. She's a trusting soul who loves to pose for strangers' cameras and naturally falls into modeling. In no time she's wearing suggestive lingerie and trading spankings with other models. To Bettie the bondage get-ups are silly not prurient. But despite efforts to expand herself and learn acting she remains a pin-up girl. In Bettie's most famous picture she's posing nude in a Santa hat in a 1955 Playboy magazine. After testifying at Congress amid the sexual Puritanism of the '50s Bettie realizes her "notorious" reputation. She quits the biz for her religious beliefs and disappears from the public eye for good. Mol's performance is described in press materials as "incandescent." It is brave to say the least. The actress’ movie career has needed a jolt since she was labeled the next “It” girl in the late ‘90s after starring with Matt Damon in the 1998 Rounders. Her last film was Neil LaBute’s 2003 The Shape of Things. But Mol finds her niche in Notorious. She plays Bettie as she was--a simple-minded and free-spirited character which can be a dangerous combination. The actress doesn't add impresario nuances to the pliable young woman beyond the Southern accents but it is an incandescent performance nonetheless. Lili Taylor (I Shot Andy Warhol) brings her rough features to Paula Klaw Bettie's tough-minded manager transitioning from the Emmy-nominated success of HBO’s Six Feet Under. Mol and Taylor play off each other very well. Recent Oscar-nominee David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck) also sneaks in there as a Southern senator calling for pornography investigations. In the hands of director/writer Mary Harron and writer Guinevere Turner Notorious snaps along like an old crime noir quick like a paperback on the beach. It is ironic and biting smoldering with sexuality but the melodramatic intentions are obvious. The dialogue lapses into clunky spots occasionally but they seem deliberate. The script's potency should not be understated. It's a statement about government's role in bedroom matters and the side effects of an American society prudish about its sexuality. Harron seems a sharp-edged journalist a chronicler of 20th century America and recruited Oscar-nominated researcher Sam Green (The Weather Undergound) to strengthen the movie's veracity such as recreating '50s-era Times Square. Bygone technical methods such as Super 8 cameras are used to match the classy black-and-white photography. Notorious is a little rough but fairly successful in its mission.
Loaded with contradictions Porter (Kevin Kline) is a small-town Midwesterner who becomes a Parisian bon vivant an openly gay man who maintains a relatively happy marriage to his wife Linda Thomas (Ashley Judd) and a gifted tunesmith who actually enjoys slumming in Hollywood. But when a riding accident leaves him crippled he becomes increasingly bitter and lonely right up until his death in 1964. The movie opens with a ridiculous framing device after Porter's death. He is greeted by the angel Gabriel (Jonathan Pryce) who begins a staged re-creation of his life featuring his various friends and foes while Porter rails at their deaf images incessantly like Ebeneezer Scrooge confronting his past. To make matters worse Kline's old man makeup is so creepily extra-terrestrial it makes him look like Mandy Patinkin in Alien Nation. It is with great relief that we then cut to glorious 1930s Paris as Kline meets Judd's lovely ex-pat divorcee and they embark on their very odd alliance. At first she condones his affairs even arranges them but soon his indiscretion and rampant promiscuity threaten to destroy their marriage.
Kline plays Porter as an unabashed sexual predator for the first hour of the movie seemingly unaffected by the hurt he causes his wife. And in the final act predictably Kline strains for pathos as Porter becomes old and bitter. Kline's acting baggage catches up with him
here to ill effect. He's been arching his eyebrows and delivering preposterous dialogue in witty deadpan style so well for so many years that when he consults a doctor on a leg operation one half expects his character to request a brain transplant a la Dr. Rod Randall in Soapdish. He's already got the gold man that Jim Carrey covets (for A Fish Called Wanda). But his "serious" turns (this My Life as a House The Emperor's Club) are just painful. Judd fares slightly better as his muse confidante groupie and pimp. Unlike so many actresses she isn't overbearingly modern. And even her affectations like inserting an accented French word into each line fit the character. This could have been the role that returned Judd to the earlier promise of her work in Ruby in Paradise and/or Heat--if it wasn't constantly interrupted by the framing device and the music.
Speaking of which rather than allowing the power of the music itself to illustrate Porter's wondrous gifts the director (and maybe some MGM marketing suits) decided to use modern pop singers to sing the songs in elaborate musical numbers. It's like watching a Mad TV parody of American Dreams. Alanis Morissette dressed as a flapper warbles
"Let's Do It" as if it's "You Oughta Know." Sheryl Crow shrieks "Begin the Beguine" as if her leg is caught in a bear trap. And in a movie that tries so hard to convince us of the gay lyrical subtext (OK we get it) what else are we to make of the musical finale "Blow Gabriel Blow"? Irwin Winkler should just stop trying to direct. He is one of the most acclaimed producers in Hollywood (Rocky Raging Bull Goodfellas among countless others) yet as a director he has a knack for taking listless subjects (Senate hearings the Internet) and making them even more boring. With De-Lovely he goes from the mundane to the ridiculous. When Porter falls off the horse Winkler cross-cuts to Linda in Paris sniffing the air as if she can somehow sense his danger. What is she his twin as well? The direction is so ham-fisted that when a character coughs you know instantly it is implying a painful rheumatic death to come if in the distant future. Even the death of a small child is milked shamelessly for drama since the script (Jay Cocks) provides none. If there is any reason to watch the movie it's the costumes (Giorgio Armani) and the vivid re-creations of pre-War Paris Venice Broadway and Hollywood. If only we could stay there. Just as we settle comfortably into the period old man Porter returns raging at the darkness his prosthetic skin threatening to melt off and go flying in every direction.
How To Write a Victorian Novel 101. First introduce a perfect family like the Nicklebys and place them in an idyllic country setting. Shortly thereafter the father/provider must lose the family fortune and swiftly die of grief leaving his family reliant on the charity of a cruel yet wealthy relative like Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer) who should break up the happy family sending the eldest son--in the case of Nicholas Nickleby 19-year-old Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam)--to teach at a horrifying boys' school called Dotheboys while forcing his mother (Stella Gonet) and his sister (Romola Garai) to live in the dark miserable city of London. During this period of separation the title character should prove himself an upstanding and honorable gentleman rescue the unfortunate show mercy to his enemies fall in love and attempt to reunite his family and avenge the wrongs done to them. If the story is a comedy he will succeed and we will proceed--to the denouement in which loose ends are tied up a happy couple weds and the cast takes its bows.
Victorian Drama 201. A rule of thumb: the villains and the minor players are always more interesting characters than the ingénues and they will always receive the greatest ovation. Nicholas Nickleby is no exception to this rule. The soft-hearted good guys--Hunnam (Abandon) as Nicholas newcomer Garai as his sister Kate Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) as Nicholas' love interest Madeline Bray and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as the broken child Smike whom Nicholas rescues from the boys' school--humbly accept their plight and it's enough to make you want to shake their genteel little shoulders to force them into action. Mercifully Hunnam at least occasionally gets to fight back exchanging some heated words and even coming to blows with his enemies especially the utterly nasty Jim Broadbent (Iris) and Juliet Stevenson (Emma) as Mr. and Mrs. Squeers who run the ghastly boys' school with finely honed cruelty. Even Plummer (Ararat A Beautiful Mind) for all he's the big villain of the piece doesn't come off as evilly as these two. There are also notable performances on the comedic side particularly among the perfectly cast merry band of melodramatic theatrical players (Nathan Lane Dame Edna Everage and Alan Cumming) that Nicholas and Smike join on their journey home.
Making Victorian Movies 301. With its fairy-tale look fantastic sets and theatrical bent Nickleby hearkens back to the flamboyant dramas of the Victorian period (think Oscar Wilde)--its opening credits in fact are displayed on the stage of a Victorian toy theater. But stories based on novels like Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby obviously take a lot longer to tell than plays--and in their time they reached their audience in a different way. It often took weeks even months to read a full novel (or a serialized one) in Victorian Britain; families would gather 'round the fire for a few pages a night savoring the story making it last. Director/screenwriter Doug McGrath's (Emma) rendition of Nicholas Nickleby reconciles these two modes of entertainment admirably allowing modern moviegoers a chance to revel in the assured pace of the twists and turns Dickens chose to place in the narrative's path but abridging them in such a way as to make good theater. Despite the relative brevity of the narrative however McGrath doesn't rush us to the end; he seems to recognize that the best stories are all about the journey not about the resolution.