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Are We the Good Guys Again?

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Did you know that certain conspiracy theorists view the Washington Monument as the sign of the Devil?

Neither did I until this past weekend, when I saw Mike Leigh’s marvelous new movie "Happy-Go-Lucky." And I couldn’t have been happier to get the news.

The critically acclaimed comedy-drama tells the story of a 30-year-old London schoolteacher named Poppy (the radiant Sally Hawkins). Poppy actually lives her life the way the spiritual masters suggest: She is open, loving, nonjudgmental, appreciative for the blessings she enjoys and intensely alive in the present moment.

What keeps the film from becoming treacly is Leigh’s observation that this sort of positive attitude is easily misinterpreted by others. Some people in Poppy’s life see her high spirits as an implicit criticism of, or threat to, themselves. Happiness can be contagious, but it can also provoke bitter responses from the less-evolved.

The film’s most miserable character is surly Scott (Eddie Marsan), a tightly-wound driving instructor who attempts to teach Poppy the rules of the road. During each of their weekly lessons, he reveals a bit more of himself, ultimately coming across as a prisoner of his own fear and xenophobia. One afternoon, when two black men ride by on bicycles, he yells at his student driver “Lock the doors!” – and his terror is genuine.

During a subsequent lesson, he launches into a largely incoherent rant, during which he decries the evil of “American multiculturalism.” “Do you know the Washington Monument is 666 feet tall?” he asks his horrified student, citing this fact as evidence that the American practice of embracing all races and ethnic groups is the work of the Devil.

A quick Google search reveals that this assertion isn’t a product of Leigh’s imagination. A number of apocalyptic-minded people with Web sites insist the monument, which in fact is 555 feet tall, has a 111-foot long base, and thereby has a symbolic if not actual connection with Lucifer. (The Wikipedia article contends the base is in fact 36 feet, but everyone knows that site was co-opted by the anti-Christ years ago.)

Although the movie, like Poppy, treats Scott with compassion rather than contempt, he is clearly the antagonist – a rage-filled man prone to lashing out at others. So it’s fascinating that one of his targets is the United States and "bad example" it sets for societies such as his own. Rather than being portrayed as a bully, America is decried by a bully.

Now, Leigh is something of an iconoclast. For years, while Hollywood made mindlessly happy films, he made grim ones (his last movie was “Vera Drake,” the story of a 1950s housewife who is jailed for performing abortions). Now that Hollywood, or at least its serious-minded component, is turning out despairing fare (“No Country for Old Men,” “There Will Be Blood,” even “The Dark Knight”), he has turned around and made a happy movie – or at least one that celebrates the pursuit of happiness.

Nonetheless, it’s a delightful surprise to hear such a reference in a European film, and it evoked in this American an unfamiliar sensation: A tingling of national pride. Any society that can get under Scott’s skin is one worth cherishing.

With the election of Barack Obama, many commentators have wondered whether world public opinion of the U.S. – which has been growing steadily more negative since 2002 – will rebound. Obviously, “Happy-Go-Lucky” was completed long before our choice of an African-American president, but it hints that our national image was shifting in a positive direction even before Nov. 4.

Not to co-opt Poppy's optimism, but we may have turned a corner.