There’s definitely potential for humor within the realm of the green movement, with its locavore restrictions and organic produce, wholesome things that are just geeky enough to tease. Yet a film primarily about such a specific movement risks diminishing its reach, both through the insularity and modesty of its topic. This is the eventual result of The Happy Poet, a diffident, occasionally sly comedy that could have benefitted from a little more energy and range.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to forgive the problems displayed here, most notable being the lackadaisical personalities of the movie’s main characters. They speak in a natural style that’s often too authentic, replete with dumb comebacks and thoughts that trail off into silence. If dramatic realism was director’s Paul Gordon’s aim, this might be a plus, but this is a comedy, where real life needs to be leavened with some measure of humor. As it stands, The Happy Poet is still a relatively sophisticated example of the genre, weird, hopeful, and full of ideas.
A sharp wit is certainly buried somewhere beneath all the self-conscious mumbling that dominates the film’s discourse. The plot centers on Bill (Gordon), an Austin idler who leaves his corporate job to open a natural food stand. This dream is immediately punctured in the first scene, when a less-than-ample loan leaves him stuck with a converted hot dog cart, paid for on the installment plan. Bill decides to soldier on anyway, setting up shop in a downtown park, stocking his cart with hummus and eggless egg sandwiches.
The Happy Poet will inevitably draw mumblecore comparisons, both for its examination of a subculture and the inelegance of the character’s speech, but it separates itself by avoiding the willful ugliness and that so many of those films present. Gordon knows how to compose a shot, not in any virtuoso style, but carefully enough that many of his scenes attain a roughly handsome beauty. The message and story, aside from some hurried third-act resolution, match this intelligent carefulness.
A more accurate reference point might be Richard Linklater’s Slacker, linked further by the shared Austin pedigree. Yet this film, fully dedicated to a conventional narrative structure, isn’t nearly as experimental or vibrant. If it dared to be more of anything, faster or broader or stranger, it might even be great film. But like its sad-sack main character, whose closed-off personality makes him hard to fully understand or sympathize with, The Happy Poet is too reservedly rough around the edges.