Happy-Go-Lucky (star rating unavailable)
Dir. Mike Leigh
I mentioned last time that I thought some of the movie selections on RiffTrax were odd. Memento, for instance, is a widely critically acclaimed film. The Dark Knight was another selection I thought was odd. It was a big summer blockbuster, but it also got good reviews and I for one liked it. It was not without its problems, but even with all the hype, Heath Ledger’s performance was all that it was made out to be. Riffing would really just get in the way of that. But maybe the riffers go for any movie that makes it big. Or maybe one of the riffers just didn’t like one of those critically acclaimed films. I know the feeling.
When I was younger, I used to watch Siskel & Ebert with my dad, and thus I have grown up with an appreciation for critics and movie reviews. As I got older, I realized that I was not always in agreement with Siskel or Ebert about whether a film was good or bad, and in fact, that was the beauty of that show, having two smart people with often two completely different and valid opinions about films. When Siskel died, he was replaced with Richard Roeper, which brought the show down a good few notches. But I continued to watch. When Ebert “temporarily” left the show to have surgery, I continued to watch the roving panel of critics, and I found one with whom I was in complete agreement about many films. That critic is Michael Phillips, of the Chicago Tribune. Now, they’re all gone, and the “At the Movies” show with Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz is a joke. So to keep current with what’s hot and what’s not, I follow Michael Phillips, and because he’s for some reason not the most avid reviewer, I also love Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten Tomatoes pools together hundreds of critics to come up with a consensus on whether or not a film is good or bad. My opinion here is that the more critics that like a film, the higher the chances I will like the film. Likewise with the poorly reviewed movies.
Recently I rented a film called Happy-Go-Lucky. It’s directed by Mike Leigh, who is an acclaimed and competent director, and it receives a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Phillips liked it too. The reason I didn’t give it a star rating above is because I stopped the DVD and stuffed it back in my mailbox at 45-minutes in. The consensus on this film is that it’s exuberant, something you don’t see much in a Mike Leigh film, and it’s a star-making turn for Sally Hawkins. Really? Because I was ready to push her off a bridge. She plays a terminally happy, child-like character. She flirts with the clerk at the local video store, even though he’s just a kid and wants her desperately to leave, and she makes a joke of her driving lessons even though her instructor is very by the book. It may not sound that bad, but as in other British offerings like The Office, she is a character you’d rather not know.
Normally I try to watch films, even films I’m not loving, all the way through to the end. Just so I give them a completely fair shake. But the other thing that bothered me about this movie was its lack of coherent story. It was merely vignettes from this woman’s life. Vignettes can often be a great form of storytelling, but these vignettes I recognized from other films. They were the kind that don’t add up to anything in the end. Even with vignettes, there has to be a hint of a narrative, that the story is pushing forward in some way. No hints here. I supsected early on that this would be the route this film took. I gave it as long as I could, but 45-minutes in absence of story and presence of annoying, shrieking character was all I could muster.
How then, how did this film come to be loved by so many critics? It’s not the first time I have been spurned. Previously I watched Superbad, also beloved by many critics, which varied in tone from unfunny to offensive. The Devil Wears Prada was another film that received decent ratings and I hated. Meryl Streep was even nominated for an Oscar for her role. And that film was maybe the worst piece of storytelling I have ever seen. I sat all the way through it because of one glimmer of hope at the beginning, where Meryl Streep explains to the main character how high fashion relates even to her, in her frumpy clothes. It was interesting, but the movie never came back to make any other points. And my dad told me recently that the crictically-acclaimed Raging Bull was a movie he hated.
So I guess the point here is that the system is not perfect. By now, I’m pretty good at being able to tell what I will like and what I won’t like from the previews, but every once in a while I’m bamboozled by overwhelming critical acclaim. To try and answer my own question about how a film like Happy-Go-Lucky comes to be loved by so many critics, I think critics are watching films with a different eye than I am. It’s how they can watch all genres of film, including ones I almost never go near, like horror. I’m always, always, always watching first and foremost for story. And it is the reason I like critic Michael Phillips, because he often talks about story in the exact same way I do. But no two people have the same taste. So if you’re like me, I wouldn’t watch any of the films I’ve mentioned here today (except The Dark Knight.) But if you’re not like me, go forth and watch these films and please, if you survive, let me know what you thought.
Oh and if you are like me, I have listed some of my favorite films in the recommendation tab of this blog. I’m thinking of removing that page altogether, so check it out now.