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Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) -vs- Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

Sherry CobenThe Smackdown

We’re in well-traveled chickflick territory. Grade school teacher and diehard optimist Poppy faces obstacle after obstacle and maintains her preternaturally even keel in Mike Leigh’s “Happy Go Lucky.” Shopaholic Rebecca Bloomwood of Sophie Kinsella’s wildly popular novels has been transplanted wholesale without ceremony or explanation from London to New York City. (To confuse matters further, Isla Fisher plays the now-Manhattanite. Born in the Middle East to parents from Scotland, she moved later to Australia. This geography- blind casting move only makes sense in an industry that would cast Bridget Jones with Texan Renée Zellweger.) Two essentially English girls battle it out for this coveted Smackdown crown; both women cruise thirty and meet a man to love. May the best flickchick win.

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The Challenger

Rebecca Bloomwood is a shopaholic with a dream. This cub journalist with a closet the size of Carrie Bradshaw’s (and, not coincidentally, the same costumer) aspires to work at the toniest fashion magazine in the country. She’s got the wardrobe down cold; now all she needs is a break. And a windfall. And a handsome prince to provide the glass slipper/green scarf. The film conspires to fulfill her fantasies, a confection of riotous color and designer labels tailor-made for a chickflick audience primed for dumb entertainment masked as social commentary.

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The Defending Champion

Mike Leigh’s terrific “Happy-Go-Lucky” came and went in the fall without even reaching many of America’s far-flung multiplexes; its DVD release is scheduled for March 10 which is our universal good fortune. Sally Hawkins made something of an indie splash, scoring a Golden Globe for her breakout performance and mysteriously missing out on an Oscar nod. (Maybe Hollywood didn’t like her speech. Or her dress. Or only had one indie slot and wanted to stay local with Melissa Leo. Who knows?) Thirty year old Poppy teaches in a North London neighborhood school and lives with her best friend Zoe. She takes a flamenco class or two, she gets romantically involved with a man she meets through her work. She visits her pregnant sister and the estranged father of one of her students. She takes driving lessons from a very troubled man played by Eddie Marsan, a man as miserable and angry as Poppy is accepting and relentlessly cheerful. Poppy blithely glides onscreen and holds its center for the film’s two hour run; her unceasing optimism is by turns exasperating and exhilarating to behold.

The Scorecard

I actually sensed my IQ dropping a few points while watching “Confessions;” even more grievously, the film offends by wasting the talents of such esteemed comedic actors as: Joan Cusack, John Goodman, John Lithgow, Fred Armisen, Lynn Redgrave, Wendie Malick, Clea Lewis, Julie Hagerty, and Christine Ebersole. All of them were left essentially stranded with nothing to do — no funny line, no memorable piece of business, not one single moment worthy of their considerable talents and time. Only Kristin Scott Thomas made something of her role as Alette, and even she was upstaged by wardrobe with that too-fabulous blue choker in her ultimate showdown scene; this theft occurred while Goodman and Cusack did their level best/worst to steal focus in the most eye-poppingly hammy ways possible. A travesty all around. Director P.J. Hogan should have his hand slapped and slapped hard.

Isla Fisher is officially adorable; no doubt she will emerge not only unscathed but elevated by her first real starring role. The diminutive fashionista with the barely detectible I’m-from-the-middle-of-the-Atlantic-Ocean accent and the fiery mane of red hair rises above all the stupid chickflick clichés – you know them by heart – the falling down, the uninhibited bad dancing, the tragically ugly bridesmaid dress, the inexplicable fight with the best friend. She’ll work again. Lots. And I don’t begrudge her any of it. She’s adorable. And she could probably play smart and decent too given the chance. Fisher could well turn out to be this millennium’s Jean Arthur. (If you don’t know who that is, shame on you. Netflix something of hers immediately.)

That said, Fisher’s not so adorable that I didn’t notice that the film is uncomfortably wedged in a suburban 1950’s time warp. News Flash: New York City is not all-white. By my possibly inaccurate (but not by much) count, there was ONE person of color in the entire cast with a speaking part. A black man in the Shopaholics Anonymous group, an ex-NBA player with a weakness for bling and white women. Come on. Seriously now. It’s freaking embarrassing. First Sex And The All-White City, now this. Grow Up, Hollywood. Open your eyes. And lest I forget, the film also features another bizarre token, one deliriously happy homeless person who I mistook in her first jaunty walkthrough for costumer Patricia Field herself.

Okay. So it’s Fantasy New York City. Whose fantasy has no immigrants? No people of color? The only foreigners a couple of Scandinavians and a dreamy Brit? This is not a fantasy anyone but David Duke should openly admit to entertaining, and it’s not a fantasy I find the least bit entertaining.

I know there are women with a shopping problem. And a credit problem. I get it. But do all the fiscally responsible people in the film have to look like the severely scolding schoolmarms and truant officers in an Our Gang comedy? Do all movie smart people have to wear glasses? Does understanding how money works and asking for credit card debts to be repaid really make one a dull villain? Is that really the message we need right now?

Since restoring credit, particularly egregiously overdrawn le=”font-size: 15px; “> credit, looms at the tippy top of the world’s to-do list right now, it seems imperative to get the message exactly right. Credit card companies still bombard college students with promises of everything for nothing, and the temptation to shop with little consequence entices another generation of innocent consumers to do the patriotic thing and go deep into personal debt. Ex-President Bush (I can’t get over how great it feels to type those words in rapid succession) hollowly exhorted the American public to shop in the wake of 9/11 as if boosting consumerism could bring back the dead and stave off panic. You say recession, I say depression. Let’s call the whole thing off. Credit card debt is no laughing matter, and we need to shore up the world economy with more than false promises and inflated empty dreams. Clothing won’t make the man or the woman, but encouraging investing more than a small percentage of one’s earnings in so callow and selfish a pursuit might actually break one. Check out this stunning recent interview with Vogue’s Anna Wintour for a zeitgeist update straight from the source.

Rebecca’s best friend, the daffy Suze (Krysten Ritter) is a narcissist’s dream; her only abiding concern is the heroine. All their conversations center around Rebecca. Even on Suze’s wedding day, Rebecca’s last minute arrival is paramount, trumping any connection with Suze’s irrelevant, mute, and muddled betrothed.

The object of all Rebecca’s affection is Luke, and Hugh Dancy is lovely. He’s no Hugh Grant, but he’ll do in a pinch. I don’t quite understand what appealed to him about Rebecca Bloomwood’s writing and character, but I’ll grant him movie logic for that particular call. Was it her innocence? Her deceit? Her unprofessionalism? Her ditziness? Her blatant ignorance? Her flagrant plagiarism? Wouldn’t a normal un-hysterical person actually worthy of love simply tell the not-all-that-mortifying truth? “I like expensive clothing. I got myself into some credit card debt. Now that I’ve become so invaluable to your magazine, could I possibly have an advance on my salary to clear the debt?” That said, even a cursory inventory of the clothes in Bloomwood’s closet would rack up a debt that might actually cause someone to lie and try to hide the embarrassingly astronomical figure. Her shoes alone would pay the down payment on a pretty nice house. Plus her clothing has superpowers; after a while spent in vacuum sealed bags in a heaving armoire, they develop the unnatural ability to fly.

Unlike Legally Blonde Elle Woods, who finally buckles down and becomes a decent lawyer, finance is a stepping stone Rebecca skims over on her way up the corporate ladder. She never spends a moment of her time really trying to understand anything she doesn’t already know; her research is conducted in a bookstore. No library? After one half-hearted Google search, she’s convinced she’s idiot savant enough to shine and shine she does. The movie falls into a familiar trap; when The Girl In The Green Scarf’s financial column becomes a sensation, we hear just enough of it to know this would never happen. She’s instantly a media superstar — Suze Orman in Leboutin pumps. Who could possibly care? (Another example of this too-common phenomenon: In Aaron Sorkin’s ill-fated television show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, he made the fatal mistake of showing enough of the show within the show to prove categorically that not only wasn’t the show hip and cool, it wasn’t even remotely airworthy.)

One more small feminist diatribe and I’ll let this little trifle alone to rake in the cash and ignore the crazy woman waving semaphor warnings of cultural collapse on the shore. Can we call a moratorium on unnecessary backbiting and peevishness between colleagues who happen to have estrogen coursing through their systems? Did the screenwriter need to stoop to the needless rivalry with the impossibly long-legged Alicia? Coiffed like a villain in an Indiana Jones sequel, Alicia (Leslie Bibb) towers over our heroine, plotting and scheming for her social and professional annihilation. Women don’t have to hate each other even if they are in unspoken competition for available jobs and men. And most especially, women don’t have to hate each other on sight. It’s lousy role modeling for young women and makes for wildly inaccurate storytelling full of simpleminded shortcuts. It’s bad for the gender. For the species. For the planet. No more.

So what does Rebecca learn? Not much. She is not penalized for her credit mess; on the contrary, she becomes something of a folk hero for simply doing the right thing. She scores a prince, and even the mannequins applaud her happy ending. Do they sense she’s finished with shopping for good or are they encouraged by her emptied closets that she’ll be back for more?

Dressed as colorfully and expressively as Rebecca Bloomwood, “Happy-Go-Lucky” Poppy’s clothing budget is no issue at all; she looks a bit like a box of crayons spilled on her classroom floor, but the motley suits her. Poppy registers as a real person, special and singular, intricately drawn and intimately exposed. No chickflick clichés litter this screenplay; Mike Leigh’s much-vaunted writing process involves months of improvisation with his actors, working from an outline and developing a fleshed-out film. As a result, the actors truly inhabit their roles, and the audience feels privileged to get this glimpse of what feels like only slightly heightened and acutely focused real life. In the course of the film, not much happens in the Hollywood high-stakes sense. But all th
e everyday things that do happen to Poppy conspire to test our plucky heroine’s resolve, to shake her faith, to break or at least bend her spirit. Happiness, for Poppy, is a decision, a life-affirming approach she applies to even the most challenging and potentially dangerous encounters. Her stubborn refusal to admit defeat or discouragement tries our credulity; yet there is something indefatigable in her character, some unnamable drive, some insatiable need that registers deeply. The actor’s commitment to the character is so complete that we don’t question her motives; we accept that Poppy’s forced cheer covers a deep and perhaps inaccessible pain and loss. All that British pluck in the face of an Empire’s decline resonates, suggesting a path for our nation as we slide down that slippery slope a century or so behind. Money is scarce for Poppy and her peers, but money is not the point of the exercise. Perhaps the British Empire has grown more accustomed to diminished expectations and made some adjustments we colonists have yet to consider. Poppy is an inspiration and a unique cinematic creation. The sight of her astride her bicycle, head held high, is an iconic cinematic image I’ll long treasure.

The Decision

Materialism is no direct route to lasting happiness; that momentary thrill of hunt-and-kill fades the instant the purchase is done, and the hapless shopper is left with piles of useless fabric trophies and unpayable bills. True achievement and sacrifice mean far more than mere acquisition. Chasing happiness in binges of shopping, drinking, drugging, sex gets the seeker exactly nowhere. Happiness can not be found in caving into any addiction; instead, the films suggest in tandem, happiness is a decision, a triumph of the will. It’s virtually impossible to find if you’re looking for it in your own reflection. Happiness is doing the right thing, usually for someone else.

In this particular moment of transcendant joy, it gives me tremendous pleasure to recommend the wonderful “Happy-Go-Lucky” to an audience who may have missed it on the big screen. Lucky you. Happy me. Now go.

About Sherry Coben 77 Articles
A comedy writer who created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, Sherry Coben — tired of malingering in development hell — has enjoyed coaching a high school ComedySportz team in SoCal, making a no-budget, high-ambition webisode series, and biting the hand that feeds her.

3 Comments on Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) -vs- Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

  1. Not a big Mike Leigh fan, eh? For me, the man pretty much walks on auteur water. Then again, I’m a sex that you and Jonathan aren’t.

  2. Our family actually paid the seven bucks to watch “Happy-Go-Lucky” as an “On-Demand” choice on our ATT U-Verse set-up. We struggled through about twenty minutes before both my son, Jonathan, and I cried, “Enough, we don’t care what we’ve paid.” It felt like nothing happened and what did must have been aimed at a sex that we weren’t. We felt like it was an artifact from another planet. (Wait! That’s a movie we would watch – “The Artifact from Another Planet.” Not that we would go out and rent “Shopaholic” either…

  3. OMG these shopping/back-talking/pink totally bullshit materialistic stereotype parade movies make me want to etch a Gloria Steinem essay in stone and then beat P.J. Hogan on the head with it.
    And can there please be a moratorium on all use of “aholic” as a suffix to anything that can’t be drunk, smoked, snorted, or injected?

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