Body of Lies didn’t have to do much to impress me. It’s the first movie I’ve seen since becoming a dad, and the switch from explosive poops to plain old explosions was a comfort. But I must have gotten rusty over the last two months. It is my duty to tell you the plot of this movie, and I confess I can only start at about the 90-minute mark, when after a great deal of strenuous editing the movie caught its breath and became a post-9/11 version of The Sting. As far as I could make out, Leonardo DiCaprio’s conflicted CIA operative flim-flammed a Mideast businessman, a minor cog in Al-Qaeda’s wheel, into a big fish, to draw out the bigger fish that his untrustworthy boss, Russell Crowe, was interested in. Part of this ruse involved DiCaprio pretending to be an average Mideast citizen, but Leo dressed as an average Mideast citizen looks like Leo dressed as an average Mideast citizen, and neither the terrorist bigwigs he’s after nor I were born yesterday.

I’m not really knocking Leo, or Body of Lies, which cuts a few corners in the logic department to get the job done but is more efficiently locked and loaded than Ridley Scott’s last picture, the draggy and morally distasteful American Gangster. That one smacked you upside the head with its posturing, and embalmed period recreation; this one takes place in our fubar world, with DiCaprio, last seen slogging through Sierra Leone circa 1999 in Blood Diamond, dispatched to the fresher hells of Iraq and Jordan to atone once more for the West’s hypocritical sins. Like Jake Gyllenhaal’s pained CIA analyst in last fall’s war-on-terror flop Rendition, DiCaprio’s Roger Ferris is about the only standup guy in the movie—which is rather difficult to reconcile with what we know of the agency’s egregious involvement in our present regional difficulties. The notion of a “good” CIA agent is hard to swallow, even in a potboiler like this one.

Perhaps realizing this, Scott and screenwriter William Monahan (Oscar winner for DiCaprio’s The Departed, and the author of Scott’s last, underrated Mideast-meets-West adventure, Kingdom of Heaven; rent the director’s cut DVD) have made his handler, glad-handing good ol’ boy Ed Hoffman (Crowe), a near-caricature of Langley ruthlessness. The director, who works with Crowe as habitually as his brother, Tony, employs Denzel Washington, asked his one-time gladiator to gain 50 pounds for the role. My guess is that he really asked Crowe to gain 25, but that once the Ben and Jerry’s started flowing the Method acting craving was hard to stop. (We’ve all been there, without the multimillion-dollar, name-above-the-the-title inducement.) The intent was that we underestimate Hoffman, who rails against “towelhead monarchies,” Bluetooths top-secret conversations while playing soccer dad for his kids, and has no compunction about leaving his agent high and dry in the faraway field when circumstances demand. Even without the weight, though, Crowe would have given a wily performance in the part (he is more comfortable with the ambiguities of the piece than he was in Gangster and Scott’s comedy misfire A Good Year); DiCaprio is solid, if less engaging, and if the picture had been a black comedy their masochistic relationship, largely conducted over the airwaves, would have been more of a hoot. The younger star gets shot at, blown up, bit by wild dogs and tortured with hammers; the older one sits on his fat ass and gives unreliable orders. Crowe must have chuckled at his co-star’s discomfort at the wrap party.

But Body of Lies is an action movie, which churns from Europe to the Mideast to Washington, and lost me along the way till it gathered me up again. The Mideast characters we meet our largely cliche: a Jordanian-Iranian nurse with whom Leo has a chaste relationship in a few pallid scenes, interchangeable Iraqis who are introduced just before their death scenes, and Crowe’s silver-tongued, questionably loyal Jordanian counterpart (Mark Strong), who calls everyone “my dear” and acts like a cultured Nazi in yesteryear releases from this one’s distributor, Warner Bros. (Mysteriously, Black Book star Carice van Houten, said to have been cast as DiCaprio’s unhappy wife, has disappeared from the finished film.) On the plus side, it has that Scott “finish,” the cinematographic spit-and-polish of his best work (the cameraman is Alexander Witt, free of the drab, hungover palette of the gloomy Gangster), and the sanctimonious, medicinal quality of Rendition and Lions for Lambs and the other “sand” pictures is largely absent. What it lacks, for all the huffing and puffing, is any urgent reason to be, other to remind us, like those other efforts, that war is hell and no one leaves the battlefield with clean hands. Body of Lies was neither the best nor the worst movie I could have picked for my return to semi-active duty, but it only gives the illusion of going somewhere.

I don’t have to tell you that these are tough times. Everyone’s jittery over the election, the global economy is in the crapper, the Cubs are out of contention again and the new TV shows bite (Kath & Kim? And when will that Christian Slater high-tech Jekyll and Hyde thing finally air so it can be cancelled?). But the movies can still surprise you. The person I least expected to tell me to turn my frown upside down was England’s Mike Leigh, whose last film was the glum abortionist portrait Vera Drake, and whose most optimistic pictures, like Secrets and Lies, are no bed of roses. He can bring the funny—run, don’t walk, to see a production of his play Abigail’s Party, but there, too, the hilarity is shot through with tremors of sociopolitical unease and personal catastrophe. He is tough on us complacent popcorn munchers. There is some of Leigh, the leftist scold, in his new picture, Happy-Go-Lucky, which Miramax opens in limited release today: A vignette with a homeless person doesn’t work, and his social-climbing suburbanite worrywarts are a cliché at this point. (Leigh brainstorms his films with his casts, and the ones who play the disapproving nags always draw the short straws.) But the title is un-ironic—this is a sweet, sunny-side-up portrait of an indomitably cheerful North London schoolteacher, tempered, but in no way overwhelmed, by skepticism and pessimism.

In a radiant, star-making performance, Sally Hawkins is the care-free Poppy, whose good cheer and ready smile are just this side of irritating. (She and Leigh have fixed the position where Poppy’s get-up-and-go-ness would drive you up a wall). Nothing fazes Poppy, not even the theft of her bicycle in the opening scene, the motor of what plot there is (“I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye,” is her reaction to the crime). But her contentment isn’t a kind of body armor; it just is, and for better or for worse the other characters (including her more tethered flatmate, her squabbling sisters, and a flamenco teacher) cope with her sincerely high spirits. Having none of it, however, is her high-strung driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan). Poppy’s polar opposite, Scott would give Travis Bickle the shakes. Poppy is unbelievable to Scott, an insult to his self-righteous paranoia, which is as corrosive as David Thewlis’ in Leigh’s Naked; her pleasant company and bubbly benevolence are an affront to his rants and raves. Reunited from Vera Drake, the two actors’ scenes together are paralyzingly funny, with the gifted Marsan starting out apoplectic behind the wheel (“The American dream never happened! The American nightmare is already here! The disease of multiculturalism!”), then zooming off into a stratosphere of blind rage and gibberish. His frustration is incurable, and Poppy, whose ditzy tenderness can achieve little workaday miracles, makes it unbearable.

For most everyone but Scott, Happy-Go-Lucky takes the edge off. For the first time, Leigh’s veteran cinematographer, Dick Pope, has shot in anamorphic widescreen, and the grit-free images are succulent. This is the Londoner’s Manhattan, and the final sequence, shot at Regent’s Park, achieves a perfect tranquility. I thought for sure that Leigh, the doubter, would pull the rug from under me at some juncture, giving Poppy a fatal disease or a horribly abusive boyfriend, but he leaves well enough alone. I left the theater unburdened, my shoulders less tense. If Mike Leigh can cheer up, you can, too.

For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.