'Happy-Go-Lucky' is a film of substance, insight

"Happy-Go-Lucky," as a title, might convey to some that this film is a lighthearted (even silly) comedy absent depth or breadth. But title aside, this is a film of real substance about a young woman, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), who has chosen to view life and all its moments with an embracing exuberance.

At first blush, Poppy appears a bit shallow, as if she has wrapped herself in an almost reflexive laugh, a mask of sorts, which has no connection to life's realities. As the film evolves, however, she is revealed to be far more complex than imagined. It soon becomes clear that how she chooses to frame her life — with humor and intelligence and above all love for those with whom she is close — is an act of sheer will and a conscious choice.

There are moments when cynicism and anger intrude, as when she decides to take driving lessons and finds herself in the presence of Scott (Eddie Marsan), her driving instructor.

Played brilliantly by Marsan, Scott is a man armored with layers of irrational anger and suspicion. Observing the two of them in the car, sitting side by side, the contrast is simultaneously comical and disturbing, and it soon becomes obvious that Poppy must wage a pitched battle not to be drawn into Scott's dark view of life. She refuses to yield and quickly the driving lessons become a metaphor begging the question: Who is the teacher and who is the pupil?

In a scene with her younger sister — married, very pregnant — she explains that she loves her life and lists the many reasons why. There is nothing disingenuous about what Poppy says — she lacks completely any artifice — and, in fact, speaks with such clarity and honesty and conviction that it carries a strength rarely seen or heard when people share how they experience life. Her perspective is not rooted in denial nor is it a construct of shallow good cheer, leached from a life unexamined. As it turns out, the effect on her sister is, surprisingly, not reassuring but upsetting, for Poppy is describing a manner of living that for the sister and so many others proves elusive.

And then there is a moment in which Poppy, standing by a window in her flat, looks out at the sky and her face is ever so briefly transformed, gripped by sadness, as if the full weight of life and all its exigencies pass over her heart and then is quickly gone and she once again chooses life. The fact is that she is 30 years old, has lived with her much-loved flatmate, Zoe, (Alexis Zegerman) for 10 years, has yet to find that one, singular person with whom she so very much wants to share her life with, and realizes there are no prospects in the offing.

Or so she believes.

In a lovely last scene, Poppy and Zoe, having rented a row boat, are passing an afternoon together on a park lake, each pulling on an oar. They are in synch but not perfectly, the boat moving forward but certainly not in a straight line. The camera pulls back slowly as they chat amiably, in the habit of old friends, and then Poppy's cell phone rings and she answers and says, "Hey, you" with a wonderful intimacy.

This is a film not to be missed and one that will likely be mulled over long after leaving the theater.

Four Christmases

Good grief. Is this a well-basted turkey with all the trimmings? With a side of ham for good measure? Definitely.

If Holiday cheer is the order of the day, well, this movie will be of little assistance. Act one and part of act two make the argument that no one should ever go home for Christmas. Instead, as is the case in this film, better to head directly to Fiji for some scuba diving, beach time, while taking comfort in the knowledge that thousands of miles separate you from hearth and kin.

Families during the holidays, the movie argues, are an emotional sauna, a swamp of unresolved issues so over the top that only those medicated will survive.

And so we find Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn arriving at the airport only to discover that their flight has been canceled because of San Francisco fog. When they are unexpectedly interviewed at the ticket counter by a local television station reporting on holiday trips and weather, well, their cell phones begin to ring. Their four blended families all saw them on the news and insist they spend part of their Christmas with them.

Hence "Four Christmases."

As it turns out, they've missed the last three using the very lame excuse that they have been working with UNESCO and inoculating children in Burma.

And so the now-stressed-out couple — two successful corporate types who've been together for three years, have no intention of marrying, or having children — begin to run the family gauntlet, starting in the early morning and going all day.

Naturally, their families are a gestalt of dysfunction, more baggage than an airport carousel, idiosyncrasies listed in psych manuals, projectile baby vomiting, a fragile gag reflex for Vaughn, and oh so much other stuff.

There are a few moments when it's hard not to smile. But in the main, this is Hollywood's yuletide fruitcake, served up to audiences who are simply hoping for some good cheer and getting instead an offering that is barely digestible and should go straight to DVD. The movie is a brick.

It's unfortunate. The cast, led by Witherspoon and Vaughn, give it their best; however, one of the inviolable laws of filmmaking is that there are no actors working today, no matter their good faith effort, who can keep a bad script above the Plimsol line. Proof: "Four Christmases."

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