Mike Leigh is not out to make you comfortable. When you invest in one of his cinematic essays, you're in for it, awlroyt. You are guaranteed a full fledged tour into not only dingy living quarters and townships, but also a wide-eyed gape into the ugliness people try to keep beneath their surfaces. The basest impulses. Leigh is never dishonest with his works.
That is why I admire so many of his films. NAKED, HIGH HOPES, SECRETS AND LIES: these are far from pleasant movies but they never flinch from the things many other writers and directors do in their works: unchecked lust, bald envy, even a sink full of dirty dishes, for fook's sake. It's there to be examined and felt. 1991's LIFE IS SWEET is no different, except that this time Leigh doesn't quite make it as immediate or involving. It's just downright irritating. A tedious and grotesque exercise in unpleasantness. Here and there, a flash of insight appears. More of the film's running time is filled with events and conclusions that are, at worst, ridiculous and obvious.
A London family with an unidentified surname goes about their dreary lives. The patriarch, Andy (Jim Broadbent), is a chef at a London catering house who seems content with working for the Man and collecting broken junk that he'll get around to fixing, someday. He's almost like a future subject for Hoarders. He and a friend (Stephen Rea) eventually try to break out a bit and run a mobile food truck that looks like hell on wheels. Andy's wife, Wendy (Alison Steadman), is a mostly rational woman trying to keep her odd family from flying to pieces. She has two very different daughters: tomboyish Natalie (Claire Skinner), a plumber who likes to hoist a pint with the guys and desires to visit America, and Nicola (Jane Horrocks), a perpetually pissy waif who does little else than scream at everyone.
Leigh presents their lives in clumsy vignettes that sound interesting when described, but usually just encourage impatience and sighs. Eccentricity is everywhere in LIFE IS SWEET, but for nought. For example, family friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall), is an oafish klutz who does offensive stickwork on drum sets and even worse violence to food. He concocts things like pork cyst and foolishly thinks he can run a bistro, quite amusingly called "The Regret Rien". Of course, it flops due to his ineptitude at every turn, mainly with the horrible things he cooks. These elements promise far more than what is delivered. Aubrey could have been endearing and fascinating, instead, he's a pest, free of interest. He's not even annoyingly interesting. Or vice versa.
That would also apply to Natalie. Her character stalks through the film mired in self-pity and loathing, barking insults at everyone (usually, "Capitalist!" or "Bullocks!"). She's also bulimic, nightly vomiting up all of her hidden swag of chocolate she spends the day scarfing. In one unfortunate scene, we learn that she can only be sexually stimulated when that chocolate is spread over her body. Her anonymous gentleman caller (David Thewlis) tolerates this at first but then becomes repelled and exclaims he feels as if to puke. I felt much the same, and not just during that scene. Again, we have a character with some potent traits who merely becomes didactic. She's a walking migraine. By film's end, it seems she may have a breakthrough with her family. I wish Leigh would've shown more of her awakening, to add some dimension to her. This thing could've easily been a TV series on the BBC.
LIFE IS SWEET also disappointed me by sometimes being dramatically obvious. Andy, while working, slips on a spoon and consequently is laid up at home with a broken ankle. He decides to frame that spoon on the wall. Then he and his wife comment upon its significance. Too much. I was reminded of the finale of a film you haven't heard of called POST COITUM. In that one, a jilted lover dives off a cliff into an ocean to presumably purify herself of her sin. Feh. As a viewer, I like to connect my own dots sometimes. I also complain when films insist on having a big scene where the film's title is explained (RAIN MAN, another wildly overrated film, comes to mind).
Maybe I'm being too hard on this movie. I typically champion independents that dare to ramble, just show life. Alternatively, the New Zealand import ONCE WERE WARRIORS is but one shining example of a film that never lets viewers off the hook with the grime of lower class existence, and meanwhile is powerful and memorable. I really wish I could share film critic Desson Thompson's assessment that LIFE IS SWEET shows "the tragic beauty of the mundane". To me, this film is just tragic. And mundane. And tragically mundane. And really exasperating.
Part III, The Great Overrated