I’ll make my plea as straightforward as possible: if you are at all into indie film, and indie comedy in particular, really, really try to see this film. It’s currently playing at the Laemmle Santa Monica in the LA area, and I’m not sure what the release plans are beyond that, but if you need to start a Tugg campaign, bug your local theater owner, or catch The Happy Poet if and when it makes a VOD bow, please just do it. You’ll thank me later.
The reason I’m so effusive? Yes, I sincerely enjoyed Paul Gordon’s film, but I also feel that it has several things possibly going against it from a first-impressions standpoint that I’d like to combat. That and the fact that I noticed it was made back in 2010 and is only now getting a release, well, it makes me feel that The Happy Poet could easily vanish into the indie woodwork, which would be a true shame. So here, counter-intuitively under the banner of my championing the film, are the warning signs that you are to ignore at all costs…
- The title. It’s both generic and intentionally arty-sounding (I mean, poet?), which gives one pause. But try to get past that. Besides, the one scene where poetry is actually recited is priceless (that’s a testament to the comedic timing of Gordon, who also stars).
- The topic. Namely, the vending of organic and “mostly vegetarian” food. Yet this is not a polemic about recommended dietary and planetary patterns of consumption. Hot dogs, in fact, play a key plot point. (And in terms of a story about dealing with an unpredictable public while doling out food, the film is far superior to last year’s Free Samples.)
- The Austin setting. The Happy Poet never tries to be trendy and hip. The setting is well-observed and used nicely, but you aren't pounded over the head with it. There's only one scene in a music club.
- The deadpan tone. You might wonder, after the first few minutes, how long Gordon can keep up his disarmingly unvain and lowkey schtick before it gets annoying. But guess what—it never does. That’s how good the script is, and how smart Gordon is as an actor and director. Don’t expect the so-deadpan-it-clouds-all-emotion-approach of mumblecore. This is a comedy, and you’ll be chuckling from the opening scene on. Very, very little here is self-consciously ironic.
- The “unknown” cast. In other modestly budgeted first features you'll often find a couple of standouts surrounded by, say, friends of the filmmaker or local stage actors making an ill-advised leap to the big screen. In short, the results are decidedly mixed. Not so here. Every performer—from the excellent Jonny Mars, Chris Doubek, and Liz Fisher down to those with one-line parts—are spot-on. This adds to the fun since we never know from which direction it will come.
- The minimalism. For much of the film the soundtrack consists of a finger playing a single piano note. Sometimes that note changes. Sometimes it’s even joined by other notes. And much of the action takes place in fairly nondescript settings. None of that matters. The emotions are big, and its the characters who are colorful.
Okay, that's enough of a rave: things are starting to get unseemly. And yes, there are a couple of places near the end where the energy flags, and the dramatic resolution itself struck me as a bit extreme, but I forgave The Happy Poet these sorts of things for the smile it kept on my face for pretty much its entire runtime... a smile that regularly erupted into helpless laughter