“The Happy Poet” tells the story of Bill, a struggling poet who takes his last bit of money and a paltry loan from the bank to start a food stand. A food stand that sells, not hot dogs like the loan officer wants, but healthy, organic foods. With his eggless egg salad recipe and a couple of loose-ends supporters, Bill struggles to make his dream work, and to connect with Agnes, the young woman who catches his heart one day at the stand.
Not quite a one-man show, but almost, “The Happy Poet” was written, directed, edited and co-produced by Paul Gordon, who also stars as Bill. It’s a sweet-natured and gentle film, featuring Gordon’s dry, straight-faced wit, along with a likeable naturalistic cast of supporting players, including Liz Fisher as Agnes, Jonny Mars as Donny, a free-loading well-wisher, and Chris Doubek as Curtis, Bill’s delivery boy whose extra-curriculars threaten Bill’s dream.
The attraction of this low-budget indie effort lies in its winning simplicity, and a sense of humor that is sly and understated. In one of the best sequences, we watch as Bill struggles to explain his menu to his first customers. Another film might have found its humor in making fun of the “out there” organic food, and by connection, Bill himself. But Gordon mines Bill’s dead-pan explanations for a different kind of laugh, one that allows Bill a certain dignity despite how at odds he is with his customers.
In another neatly observed scene, our suspicions are confirmed that Bill stopped writing poetry for a good reason. When he does finally read one of his poems to Agnes, it’s a murky ode to woman parts entitled “Chasm,” (“I guess the humor didn’t…jump out at you” Bill says at seeing Agnes’ obvious discomfort). There is a nicely edited sequence where Curtis is out trying to drum up business among the dis-interested Austin locals, and good use of non-professional extras to populate the food stand scenes.
This could easily have become a tiresome screed about healthy eating and social responsibility, but Gordon keeps the message light and the touch restrained, never resorting to cheap laughs at the expense of his audience’s intelligence. The 85-minute running time doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Not everything works so well, though. The sparse piano music score sounds like it was recorded in a dusty Austin garage somewhere, played by a pianist with one hand in a cast. Gordon’s dead-pan performance becomes a limitation after a while, eventually leading me to question what Agnes sees in Bill, why she winds up with him. The happy ending seems out of character with the rest of the story, really too happy and too neat for a film that seems to celebrate the ragged edges of Bill’s quirky resistance to the status quo.
But even that happy ending is treated with wry detachment. I sensed an interesting ambivalence in the final shot, a close-up of Bill’s face with restless eyes. Perhaps that’s Bill (and the filmmakers) raising a reasonable doubt about the validity of that ending and the ‘success’ it represents?
“The Happy Poet” is presented in Widescreen, with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The picture quality is noticeably grainy, especially in the night or low-light scenes.
The audio track has options for Dolby 5.1 or Dolby Stereo 2.0, and the quality is acceptable. The audio set-up menu is accessible after you press the play button, not in a “Set-up” tab on the main menu.
- Theatrical trailer
- A short set of outtakes and bloopers
- An extended version of one scene
- A commentary track with the main cast, which sounds like they had one microphone and it was placed in tthe soundman’s lunch box. When you can hear them talking, it’s loose and anecdotal.
- Four promotional web promo episodes , which are very funny and seem to point to a more off-center kind of film than the finished product. It’s not clear, but maybe these were made before the film itself was started? Maybe not, but they’re inventive and hilarious regardless.
- Scoring The Film—footage of what I assume is the composer Eric Friend playing the main theme on the piano, and another bit of stars Gordon and Doubek playing another theme. None of them has a cast on their arm.
A pleasant and patient low-budget sleeper, “The Happy Poet” succeeds with an easy-going, deadpan charm, and a likeable cast.