(2010) Comedy (Self-Released) Paul Gordon, Jonny Mars, Chris Doubek, Liz Fisher, Amy Myers Martin, Richard Lerma, Sam Wainwright Douglas, Carlos Trevino, Anita Kunik, Paul Famighetti, Jordan Strassner, Matt Joyner, James Jensen. Directed by Paul Gordon
Dreams come in all sizes, big and small. Some people dream of changing the world, others are happy at merely changing their own lives. Some want to do great things – some just great things for the world.
Bill (Gordon) doesn’t have a grand agenda. He just wants to serve good, healthy food from a food cart in his hometown of Austin, Texas. However, he is drowning in debt, mostly due to student loans accrued as a creative writing major at the University of Texas. When he goes to a bank to see about getting a loan to start up his business, he is met with a nearly laughable offer of $750.
He accepts it and sets out to buy provisions and find himself a cart, which he does – an aging hot dog cart from a suspicious guy who has a thing about hot dogs. While Bill isn’t particularly against hot dogs per se, they are not exactly in his immediate business model.
He finds himself a spot in an Austin park and promptly has a truly awful day. Most of the business he gets is from people looking for hot dogs and who aren’t particularly interested in something healthy and organic. He can’t even give the stuff away – he gives one person an eggless egg salad sandwich as a free sample and the guy takes one bite and throws it away. Eventually he meets Curtis (Doubek), a guy who hangs out in the park most of the day who genuinely likes his food. That gives Bill the incentive to come back the next day.
He meets Donnie (Mars), a cheerful self-promoting dope dealer who thinks that Bill’s idea is a good one. He sets up a delivery service and hands out flyers. Curtis even comes up with a name for Bill’s cart – the Happy Poet. Business begins to pick up.
Bill becomes infatuated with Agnes (Fisher), a pretty cubicle drone who finds his lunch cart and she begins to come by regularly. With Bill a bit too clueless to ask her out (despite Donnie’s threats to ask her out himself if Bill doesn’t), Agnes finally asks him if he wants to go bowling with her. The night eventually ends up at Bill’s place where he reads her some of his poetry – an excruciatingly bad vaguely sexual monstrosity called “Chasm.”
However things begin to go south. Despite the good business Bill is getting, he is giving away far too much product to people like Curtis and even to Agnes. He also has payments due on the cart and he is pricing his food too low for him to make sufficient profit. He soon runs out of money and is forced to sell hot dogs, much to the chagrin of his customers.
He also discovers that much of the success of his delivery is due to Donnie’s sideline of delivering pot with the food. The betrayal sends him into a downward spiral of self-doubt and depression. Donnie feels bad about it and when it is discovered that Curtis has a little secret he’s been keeping from his friends, change is in the wind.
This is the kind of movie that doesn’t have to shout to be heard. It is low-key and quiet, getting under your skin rather than in your face. Director/writer/actor/editor/sandwich maker/truck unloader/generally in charge of a lot of things guy Gordon delivers his lines in a flat Midwestern monotone, a cross between Steven Wright and Bob Newhart. This really helps with the development of the character as a bit of a doormat. In fact, the title is very ironic since Bill is neither happy nor much of a poet (which he, in a moment of self-awareness, confesses to Curtis).
Donnie is very much the anti-Bill in the movie; loud where Bill is quiet, aggressive where Bill is passive and self-aggrandizing where Bill is self-effacing. In that sense, Mars and Gordon make a really good team, near-opposites that help create quite a unit. Doubek also does some pretty good work as the enigmatic Curtis.
Fisher does a great job as Agnes. She’s like so many young women out there; decent, giving but having to navigate a relationship that is a bit weird. There is a sweetness to the relationship between Agnes and Bill that flavors the whole movie with a subtle but intoxicating spice.
Austin is a good location for the movie. It’s an arts-favorable city with a hip, sophisticated young citizenry (many involved with the university or state government) and a thriving music scene. It’s a great place to live and the movie showcases that aspect of it.
I’m not really big on vegan and vegetarian food but I found myself kinda hungry for it afterwards; I’m not sure whether that’s attributable to Gordon’s skills as a filmmaker or a chef (I’m more inclined towards the former though). I also really appreciated the movie’s charm, slow pace and understated humor. The Happy Poet is not necessarily for those who limit their comedies to things like The Hangover or Judd Apatow’s movies (and their many clones) but for those who appreciate a quiet, reflective chuckle it is quite ideal. Do I get the free veggie chips with that?
REASONS TO GO: Gordon’s deadpan delivery contrasts nicely with Mars’ frenetic one. Charming story and a cast whose performances are as organic as the food.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be too low-key for some who like their humor broad and raunchy.
FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of drug humor and some drug use, mild sexuality and a little bit of language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The eggless egg salad is an actual sandwich filling used at the filmmaker’s favorite organic food market sandwich counter in Austin.
HOME OR THEATER: Worth seeking out on DVD.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Made in India