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Fall Film Preview: Mike Leigh is ... back!

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It’s been a calamitous year for specialty films, with all sorts of specialty divisions either going out of business or suffering huge cutbacks. Having seen a few of the fall offerings, I have to admit I was beginning to think the slump would never end. ‘Synecdoche, New York,’ Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, has some clever writing and a great subject--a man obsessed with his own mortality. But it’s basically a murky existential meditation on the meaning of life, without the Monty Python comic relief. After going unsold at Cannes, ‘Synecdoche’ was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, who’ll release it in October and plans to put Kaufman on a 10- to 12-city campus speaking tour in hopes of hitting the target audience--apparently coeds who still read Camus.

Meanwhile, Focus Films has ‘Hamlet 2,’ due out in limited release Friday. The film, which stars Steve Coogan as an overzealous high school drama teacher mounting an outlandish sequel to Shakespeare’s best-known play, sold for a whopping $10 million at Sundance last winter. I wish I could say Focus got its money’s worth, but my guess is that audiences will shaking their head, wondering who packed the house at the festival screening. Amy Poehler has a great bit part as a loony ACLU lawyer, but most of the film’s comic turns are dead ends. I think it’s a safe bet that there will be no ‘Hamlet 3.’

So now for the good news. After a four-year layoff since ‘Vera Drake,’ which earned three Oscar nominations, Mike Leigh is back with ‘Happy-Go-Lucky,’ a film about an irrepressible free spirit named Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins) who manages to giddily bounce around London, full of life-affirming good cheer, but without an ounce of cloying or mawkish sentimentality. (After all, it’s still a Mike Leigh movie.) For me, the best performance in the movie is from Polly’s nemesis, a driving instructor named Scott (played by Eddie Marsan, seen most recently in ‘Sixty Six.’) A Leigh stock company regular, Marsan gives one of the year’s great performances as a fuming sourpuss with the personality of an Old Testament prophet. Hands firmly clenched in a death grip on the steering wheel, he’s enraged by everything, from Polly’s flouncy boots (‘Vanity before safety!’) to what he views as the nightmare of British multiculturalism (when he spies an immigrant driver doing a poor job of negotiating a turn, he bellows: ‘Come on! Drive the car! You not driving a camel. We have laws in this country!’).

He doesn’t take to Polly’s mirthful approach to life. ‘You can make jokes when you’re driving, Polly,’ he says through gritted teeth. ‘But you will crash and will die laughing.’ It being a Leigh film, the story is chock-full of oddball characters, from a high-strung flamenco instructor to a troubled child in the kindergarten class Polly teaches. But the best part of the film is the way it so casually allows us to grasp how intertwined each relationship can be. No one is easily stereotyped. Mike Leigh’s world, even a world dominated by a character who appears full of way-too-much unquenchable optimism, is always a world full of surprises.

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Miramax is slated to release the film Oct. 10. Here’s a look at the trailer:


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