The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (shot in classical black-and-white) recalls the old down-and-out boxer stories that enchanted old Hollywood. The myth of uneducated and unsophisticated vagrants, blessed only with the talent of giving and taking a beating, fighting their way into society’s good graces has been a pipe dream of working class roughnecks since the Great Depression and has since become a popular locality for Hollywood formula and romanticism. The film shies from America’s old boxing myths by truthfully recounting the days leading up to the Olli’s big break as he prepares to joust the American featherweight champion, Davey Moore.
Although seemingly attuned to classical underdog conventions, this brief and meditative study on real life prize fighter, Olli Mäki, is more about the man’s existential self reevaluation in the midst of his fast rising (and even faster vanishing) celebrity.
Olli (Jarkko Lahti), a Finnish amateur boxer, with a solid fight record, a clean slate and a chip on his shoulder, is chosen as Finland’s top contender to face the featherweight champion of the world. This fight is destined to be the biggest in Finnish’s history, but Olli remains reasonably unconvinced by his own abilities. Pushing him is his antsy, fame-hungry manager Elis (Eero Milonoff), a man whose unease as a husband and father press him to push Olli beyond his physical and mental capabilities in order to sustain both their futures in sports. Olli on the other hand veers from the dubious promises of fame and finds himself drawn to the prospect of marrying his sweetheart Raija (Oona Airola) to whom he devotes all his attention.
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki imparts understated beauty to its otherwise predictable truisms. The absentminded Olli seems only capable of seeing life as a means of experiencing simple pleasures and relishing moments instilled in memories, rather than the moments inscribed in fight records, and captured on film. As a contrast, Elis’s arrogant search for fame shows a shallow, futile effort in pleasing people who mean the littlest (and, at the same time, the most) to him. There’s no denying the shallowness of Elis’ greed, however, his greed is the result of inner turmoil and, thus, his pathos isn’t drawn from a place of superiority one might feel, but a mutual empathy. He is the film’s most tragic illustration of personal and professional failure, a cautionary tale beset on human values—not unlike the bums searching for similar glory in John Huston’s Fat City (1972).
This film builds on expectations in a way that arouses the viewer into anticipating Hollywood’s cliches and rubberstamps. Olli Mäki’s upcoming bout subjects the boxer to physical hardship, mental toils and emotional grief; in a more predictable narrative this unfolding of trials and tribulations dramatically invites an underdog victory or a martyred defeat by the film’s conclusion. However, when The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki subverts these kinds of expectations it doesn’t simply disappoint viewer anticipation but reinvents it, allowing the viewer to reflect on personal satisfaction, emotional fulfillment and other things ignored by Hollywood’s superficial idea of triumph.
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki seems to overturn the boxing movie’s every custom and touchstone, but its modesty and grace shape more than a simple disruption of boxing movie cliches. By supplanting the trite, ritualistic storytelling of the boxing genre for a more engrossing humanistic experience, the film introduces the genre to triumphs outside of the spotlight. Such triumphs are unacknowledged and ignored within the hedonistic principles of most boxing movies, which weigh dramatic consequences and rewards solely on whether a protagonist wins or loses his final match. It’s no surprise why films like Fat City, Rocky and Raging Bull (films that outright refuse to exult the dehumanizing sport of boxing) are considered the greatest of the genre.
Ultimately the film’s jovial melodrama, lightheartedness and romance may only amount to facile life-lessons (meek in comparison to revisionists like John Huston and Martin Scorsese), but the film proves that a genre beset by endless clichés and stereotypes can still surprise at every turn and endlessly captivate us to life’s small charms.