Mike Leigh does away with pretense in comedy 'Life Is Sweet'

February 06, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Life is sweet, isn't it? Of course it isn't. It's hard, bitter, disappointing and, oh yes, it stinks.

It is, however, better than all other forms of existence -- all none of them. It's it and that's that.

And Mike Leigh's new comedy, "Life Is Sweet," is also it and that's that. The film, which won last year's National Film Critics Award, opens today at the Charles. Its deepest irony is that it's anti-ironic: Leigh really means that life is sweet if you've got the guts and the character to make it so, outer circumstances being what they are; his examination of a British working-class family paints a picture of shining through far more effectively than the overblown Hollywood horsefeather pile of that title.

This film, like his earlier and more bitterly political "High Hopes," has a bumbling, shaggy quality to it: It follows as a cook and his aerobics-teacher wife and their two bitter daughters struggle to keep afloat in a dismal economy, desperately wedded to jobs they hate, looking for little enterprises to bring in the few bob a week more that means the difference, yet still and all trying to remain a family and a part of a larger community. They just meander along in the lower-middle class suburb of Enfield in a rowhouse. But they're as heroic as any commando squad or bomber crew.

Leigh has a wonderful love of actors that gives his films a sense of vivid spontaneity underneath the plot shambles. He stands back, trusts them and lets them work, without the formal encumbrances ofthe Hollywood system, story conferences, overproduction, dialogue by committee. The story conferences are there on the screen, as the actors invent the roles they're playing and let the story more or less unspool from the inspiration of the moment.

Thus Alison Steadman's Wendy is statuesque, energetic, sexual and extremely irritating. She has one of those knickering laughs, like a horse trying to get your attention through the fence, and she thinks she's funny, so she's always cracking wise with a natter of hopelessly abrasive little jokey-wokeys. It's to Steadman and Leigh's credit that they don't sentimentalize her into Mother Earth, Mother Courage and Mother of us all. She's resolutely and totally Wendy. But of course she's also Mother Earth, Mother Courage and the Mother of us all.

She's married to Andy (Jim Broadbent), a stolid, nubby little man who's as decent as the day is long, yet capable of doing the silliest damn things. In the first few minutes of the film, he sinks his family's life savings into a used and somewhat ratty-looking "caravan," a refreshment stand on tires. He means to fix it up, but somehow never gets around to it, so it sits in the front yard, getting rustier, a symbol of the family's rotting aspirations.

The twin daughters are Natalie (Claire Skinner), decent but weirdly androgynous, and the spectacular Nicola (Jane Horrocks), a secret bulimic who's dropped out of college and lives at home where it is her deepest pleasure to vent the rage of hell's hottest fires on any and all that come before her, mainly her family whom she punishes for the unforgivable sin of loving her.

Horrocks' small mouth knits up into a rat-trap of hostility, her eyes leak bolts of scorn and her tiny fists clinch into cudgels: she's consumed with hatred, most of it of course directed at the self. It's also typical of the movie that no easy salvation for her knot of self-loathing is offered. In an American movie, some glibly compassionate shrink would set her free with a few seconds' worth of psychobabble; here, she only smolders on into a bleak future.

So what happens to them? Not much, really. A friend tries to open a restaurant and fails. Nicola makes love in her locked room to her dummy-boyfriend. Wendy picks up a gig in a child's clothing store. Andy doesn't fix the caravan. Then he sprains his ankle. Somehow, the family will get through it all.

Sometimes the unleavened accents leave you with lines that soundlike "Ach, mif uhl drabbin' chips me droidal gwina dold!" And the humor isn't structured to build in the American tradition, running from titter to giggle to gurgle to laugh to belly laugh; rather it pops and spits at the edges of the movie, as intermittent as the rain. This is all very strange, but if you don't think of the sad old, great old city of Baltimore and its good people in these hard times, then you don't have a brain to call your own.

'Life Is Sweet' Starring Alison Steadman and Jane Horrocks.

Directed by Mike Leigh.

Released by October Films.

Rated R.

***

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