06/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mike Leigh, Randy Pausch, Reader's Digest and an End to Miserablism

Lust, Caution. Michael Clayton. In the Valley of Elah. No Country for Old Men. Control. There Will Be Blood. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. All masterpieces in the new genre: the feel-bad movie. Enter feeling fine, exit in despair. People are evil. Love is dead. Altruism's a fantasy. The world is doomed.

And yet into this morass of cynicism and gloom strides the zeitgeist master himself, Mike Leigh. The man who more or less invented miserablism as an art form (Bleak Moments, Hard Labor, Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake) has changed his tune. His new film, Happy-Go-Lucky is, as the title suggests, a cheerful film. One London critic said she sat through it on the edge of her seat, expecting disaster to strike at any moment. But it never happened. The protagonist, jolly Polly, goes through life finding -- and bringing -- value everywhere she goes: in crowded London streets, an inner-city school, her bickering family, even with a demented old vagrant. She's so cheerful that, when her bike is stolen, she merely regrets that she didn't get to say goodbye.

When Mike Leigh strikes out from the pack, pay attention. Here is an artist who, for decades, has charted the moods and preoccupations of ordinary people, with a insight and rawness few dare match. What's he doing making a happy film?

I think he's doing what we all need to do, and what more and more of us are doing: rejecting miserablism and all its works. I'm tired of seeing films that leave me feeling helpless. I'm sick of watching in utter passivity as men destroy the planet. And I'm increasingly outraged by so-called entertainment that reinforces my sense of meaninglessness. It all panders to a kind of adolescent sophistication that deems anything dark and tortured as smart, while anything funny and life-enhancing must be for idiotic airheads. I'm no Pollyana -- I know we're in a desperate state -- but increasingly I believe that pessimism is an indulgence and optimism a moral imperative.

And I'm in good company -- starting, but not finishing with Mike Leigh. Have you see Readers Digest lately? Bought by a consortium of private equity firms that included Ripplewood Holdings, the J. Rothschild Group and Merrill Lynch Capital, the magazine is undergoing not so much a facelift as a life change, under the editorship of Peggy Northrop. The June edition is her first -- and gives just a hint of things to come.

"We think our readers want to learn something," says Northrop. "They want to be inspired. We are hardwired to enjoy life and to overcome obstacles. We want a sense of community and a sense that we can all do something to contribute to it. More and more, what I'm hearing is that everyone knows that there are problems, but they want to hear solutions. And that is one of the things that no national magazine is focused on."

Northrop isn't suggesting a magazine just full of good news; she's way too smart for that. What she is talking about is the hunger for possibility instead of despair, and proposals in place of critiques. Reader's Digest has the largest readership of any magazine in the world. If it is tuned into this new, positive zeitgeist, attention should be paid.

Northrop takes her inspiration in part from artists like Preston Sturges. Famous for screwball comedies, his films have a serious edge, daring to be sophisticated and raucous at the same time. His success came not from clinging to smug cynicism but from using a smart, critical mind to make people laugh.

"Films like Sullivan's Travels are goofy movies," says Northrop, "Sturges felt like he had to show what was happening in America -- he could show criminal conspiracies and chain gangs -- but he also understood that people need to laugh, they have a need to be happy. I think of this magazine that way. Because otherwise people are paralyzed. When you consider the problems we face -- the war, global warming, the economy: what are you going to do? Close your door and load your gun? There is a need to think about solutions, about what works. And there is a need to be happy in order to be able to do that."

Consistent with that approach is the Digest's interview this month with Randy Pausch, whose last lecture at Carnegie-Mellon has already taken the web by storm. Here's a gifted, middle-aged man, who, even as he confronts his own early death, can talk about what makes life worth living. "Humor," says Pausch, "is one of the greatest gifts our species has been given. To lose it would be terrible." Despair is a luxury for those with time to kill.

What makes Americans happiest, says Northrop, are opportunities, freedom and work. Here she's completely aligned with Pausch (who talks with such passion about his work) with the new school of positive psychologists (Martin Seligman et al) as well as with filmmaker Mike Leigh. What keeps his incorrigible protagonist happy? Work. Poppy works as a teacher in an inner London school. She's not tackling urban poverty single-handed, but she is making an impact. She's found work that lets her make a contribution, invests her life with meaning and leaves the world an ever-so-slightly better place. And of course, work is what optimism demands: not sentiment but the energy and creativity to defy miserablism. It's no accident that, throughout the movie, Polly is in almost constant motion. Optimism is both physically and intellectually more demanding than despair. It's the lazy who whine.

When I left Happy Go Lucky, an elderly couple in front of me decried the movie. Why waste a whole film on someone who was, they said, 'mentally deranged'? That's what they thought: she was so happy, she must be crazy. Why? Because she wasn't hard, she wasn't cynical and because she refused to feel disenfranchised. I think they got it all wrong. It's an act of real importance to devote an entire film to a character whose engagement with the world is just like ours: someone not ignorant of pain and anger but who just doesn't let them win. Perhaps happiness is the new form of dissent.

"I love my life," says Poppy. "It's hard at times, but that's part of it."

"You can't make everyone happy," her flatmate tells her.

"No harm trying" is the reply.


Happy-Go-Lucky opens in the US in September 2008.