In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
The majority of sports movies the tend to be about the protagonist’s greatest hits. The biggest wins. The sorriest losses. The rise to fame, the downfall, and the inevitable return to glory. So often it’s all about the event and how the athlete at the center puts everything on the line to achieve victory. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki about none of these things. Yes, it tells the story of a boxer preparing for a big match, but it’s really not about a boxer at all. It’s about a man who just so happens to box. It’s also a charming romantic comedy.
It’s 1962, and Finland’s Olli Mäki is given the chance to compete for the World Featherweight Title. In doing so, Olli has the opportunity to bring his country its first notable sporting title. His American opponent, Davey Moore, severely outclasses him, but that doesn’t leave our hero feeling anything but a-okay. He plans to train hard in the hopes of winning, but to him, it’s just another day in the ring. At the weigh-in, Olli happily admits that he’s simply honored to go up against a great fighter. When asked how he’d feel about defeat he remarks that he’d feel relieved to have lost to someone very talented rather than to a nobody. This does not please Olli’s manager Elis, a retired fighter himself, who desperately wants this event to be monumental. He relates a tale to Olli of his own brush with boxing greatness.
“It was the happiest day of my life,” he says, wishing the same joy upon Olli, and inadvertently giving the movie its title.
Olli trains dutifully, but doesn’t exhibit the fire that Elis feels is required to win. Olli is frequently berated by his coach for his decidedly un-hungry approach to training, but these admonishments never seem to take. In addition, Elis drags Olli along to high-class publicity events at which the meek pugilist feels uncomfortable. He even goes so far as to have an increasingly disruptive documentary crew follow Olli’s training regimen. Meanwhile, a romance begins to bloom between Olli and his friend Raija. This, according to Elis, is the worst possible thing a fighter in training can do. Add to that the physical pressures of dropping a weight class, and who could blame Olli for checking out? And really, who could blame Elis for wanting a more driven athlete under his wing?
In a more typical movie, the differing values between Olli and Elis would lead to explosive drama sandwiched between stunning feats of athleticism, but The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki keeps everything low-key and light. Olli and Elis never butt heads, nor do they even really argue. In fact, it’s almost alarming how much they act like real people (and being a true story, they are, to some degree, real people). Frankly, our title character is just a joy to hang out with for 90 minutes. Certainly, this will rub some viewers the wrong way, and the lack of larger, more bombastic narrative convention will register as bland or boring (I admittedly wasn’t quite sure how to consume the film as I was watching it) but it’s this light subversion of expectations that ended up sticking with me long after the movie ended. I found myself almost completely unconcerned with the sporting aspects of the film, and obsessed with the charming personality which drives the story forward.
It’s almost impossible to get through a film review anymore without some mention of gender politics, sometimes merited, sometimes not, and while it’s hardly my greatest interest, I will say this about Olli Mäki: This dude is no less a man’s man than any of his movie athlete forbears. Where he differs is that his strength comes not from proving himself, but rather from having nothing to prove. It’s a hypnotically watchable conceit against all cinematic odds. The Rocky fan in me was just waiting to get pumped up by moments of sweat and tears, but the human in me found just as much to love in seeing peaceful strength played with joyous warmth. Whenever the concept of toxic masculinity ever rears its ugly head in my life, it’s always been due to a man’s (sometimes my own) fear or weakness. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki showcases the calm, cool, and collected version of manhood from which all of us could take a lesson. It’s not about being better than someone else, but being the best version of yourself.
The challenge is making this conceit cinematic, and it’s a challenge this film rises to and exceeds with every frame. Shot in crisp black and white, the simplicity of the visuals go pound for pound (boxing pun!) with the themes of the story, as does the minimal-yet-bouncy soundtrack/score. There’s just something cozy and delightful about the whole thing that has left me glowing in the time since I watched it.
The online streaming platform Mubi is behind the release, and it’s very fitting to their standard of programming. If they continue to pick up films like this one (it was Finland’s official submission at the 89th Academy Awards), they could find themselves amongst the other titans in this new wave of unconventional “studios.”
As it stands, this might be the best movie I’ve seen all year.
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki opens in Philly theaters today.