SXSW FILM 2010
By Don Simpson | March 28, 2010
Director: Paul Gordon
Writer: Paul Gordon
Starring: Paul Gordon, Jonny Mars, Chris Doubek, Liz Fisher, Amy Myers Martin, Amy Myers Martin, Ricardo Lerma, Sam Wainwright Douglas, Carlos Trevino
Bill (Paul Gordon) is looking for a job. He has the bright idea to borrow the very small amount of cash that his bank is willing to loan to him in order to buy a hot dog cart and convert it into a health food cart. At least in the beginning, Bill plans on this being a one-man operation. He will prepare the organic and mostly vegetarian sandwiches himself as well as man the food cart.
After finding a prime location – beside a hike and bike trail (at what some may recognize as Austin’s Lady Bird Lake) – crowded with people enjoying the outdoors, doing healthy things like walking, running and biking; Bill quickly discovers that most people, no matter how healthy purport to be, want food carts to serve cheap food like hot dogs. The novel concept of a healthy food cart seems completely foreign (if not absurd) to the foot and bike traffic passing by Bill’s stand. So the first few days, Bill is reduced to giving away free samples and unseemly discounts in order to establish a small but dedicated customer base. This is how he discovered his two most loyal customers – Agnes (Liz Fisher) and Curtis (Chris Doubek).
Curtis begins to hang around the cart daily, earning free sandwiches by performing menial tasks for Bill. Bill’s friend Donnie (Jonny Mars) volunteers to help with advertising, which drums up some paying business for what is now called (thanks to Curtis) The Happy Poet food cart (Bill studied creative writing and has been known to dabble in poetry). When Donnie begins a Happy Poet delivery service, business seems to prosper (but it is not without irony that most of the increase in business is thanks to the other green stuff that Donnie sells on the side).
Unfortunately, Bill runs out of money. His overhead and debt are too high, customer base is too small and prices are kept too low in order to remain competitive with the neighboring hotdog vendors. Essentially, Bill is penalized by Capitalism for wanting to provide cheap yet healthy and eco-conscious food to his customers. We have seen some related success stories in real world (Whole Foods, P. Terry’s). Like Bill, they cannot necessarily compete on price but they have found other ways (health, eco-consciousness) to entice and retain their loyal customer base (at least when their CEO is not publishing opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal). So maybe Bill just needs to make some adjustments to his business model?
Writer-director-actor Paul Gordon’s The Happy Poet is a perfect example of a writer-director knowing their own strengths and range as an actor. Every line is fine-tuned for Gordon’s naturally slow monotone delivery (to quote Guided by Voices: “I speak in monotone: Leave my fucking life alone”). Bill is not a man who is readily able to express emotions via his speech – something that becomes very apparent during his interactions with Agnes.
I see The Happy Poet as an intelligent political and social commentary about healthy food, eco-consciousness, entrepreneurial spirit and Capitalism. The Happy Poet can be read as a micro-economic metaphor for the macro-economic situation in the United States. Thanks to the downfall of the domestic agricultural then industrial-based economies (not to mention the over-reliance of foreign labor) – and more recently the crashing real estate and banking markets (I’m purposefully choosing not to comment on the “drill baby drill” mentality of the energy market) – the U.S. needs to rely on entrepreneurial spirit and small businesses to keep the money in this country flowing. And as energy (thus shipping) costs increase, local (and eco-conscious) businesses are becoming more and more important in the U.S. economy. Yet, as we witness during Bill’s interaction with his banker, entrepreneurs have a very difficult time finding sufficient funding for their endeavors (unless of course the entrepreneur is rich). The U.S. economy is structured in such a way that wealth is power; almost everyone else – no matter how brilliant their ideas – is held back from achieving success because you need money to make money. The rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer, with very few exceptions. Any of our readers that associate themselves with the Tea Party would probably refer to me as a Socialist/Communist/Maoist/Bolshevik, though I doubt any of those organizations would want me as a member. (I would also like to add that though it is obviously not the point of the film – as it was in Everthing’s Gone Green – The Happy Poet does inadvertently reveal that the most reliably successful entrepreneurial endeavor for the non-rich is drug dealing.)
Though I have obviously read much into The Happy Poet, it is by no means an in your face political or economic diatribe. Gordon chooses not to lecture to the audience, nor are we forced to think. However relevant to real world situations; The Happy Poet is, at its core, a great comedy – a very natural and realistic one at that. The characters in The Happy Poet could have very easily been exaggerated stereotypes for the sole purpose of garnering laughs; but instead, Gordon opts to keep everything toned down. For example, despite being privy to plenty of humorous situations and great dialog, Bill comes off as neither laughable nor trite; instead he is a very honest portrayal of an everyman who much of the audience will probably be able to relate to. Many of us have been (or currently are) in a similar situation to Bill (I for one find Bill eerily similar to myself) and thankfully The Happy Poet does not make fun of that situation nor does it leave us feeling sorry for ourselves.