LIFE IS SWEET B
Great Britain (103 mi) 1990 d: Mike Leigh
Cinema of discomfort by way of comedic farce, striking a wonderful balance between despair and comedy, this is Mike Leigh’s third film, mostly working in theater and television at the time, introducing his own Third Man production company which is the vehicle for all his future film releases. Relying upon a stalwart cast, anchored by his own wife at the time, Alison Steadman as Wendy, the irrepressible matriarch of a middle-class suburban family, seen in an amusing prologue introduction, featuring that rare thing never shown in Mike Leigh films – young children. It’s a bubbly, upbeat intro filled with a kind of colorful joie de vivre from the always sunny Wendy, encouraging young primary school kids to shake their bums and raise their arms in joyous motion, letting off a little steam, where they need a little persuasion, not easily letting themselves go. Made at the end of the Margaret Thatcher era of British conservatism, with Leigh at the time branded as “The Scourge of the Middle Classes,” the film is anything but sunny, with people stuck in dead-end lives, not exactly miserable, just hating the way their lives turned out. A young Jim Broadbent is Wendy’s husband Andy, a professional cook in an industrial kitchen, who takes a lot of flak at home for not carrying out a few home improvement projects, never really motivated to take the time, preferring to hang out in pubs with his exasperatingly manipulative friend Patsy (Stephen Rea), who plies him with alcohol before surprising him with supposedly cheap deals on retail items for sale, which includes a broken down mobile snack bar that he might convert to a food truck, but it needs a lot of work. Nonetheless, his dreams of getting out from under the horrible weight of his present job inspires him to dream of something better, hoping a food truck is the way to go, but it simply sits outside his front door like a broken down boat with a hole in it forever anchored on land, never once making it out to sea. Basically a good-natured guy, he’s too polite to admit he’s been snookered, yet every scene together with Patsy produces the same irrepressible gullibility, as he always falls for the latest swindle. Their children are twins in their early 20’s, two girls at opposite ends of the spectrum, Natalie (Claire Skinner), bookish and clear-headed, easily mistaken for a boy, yet quite comfortable working as a plumber, saving up for a vacation trip to America, and Nicola (Jane Horrocks), an ill-tempered layabout with an acerbic tongue, contemptuously dismissive of others, quick to call people “Capitalists” or “Fascists,” fancying herself as an ardent feminist, yet her everpresent dour mood is unshakeable, completely isolating herself in self-destructive behavior, smoking excessively to suppress the appetite, but showing signs of bulimia, refusing to eat all day, then stuffing herself with sweets in the late night hours, retching into the night, while her sister in the room next door overhears all.
A typical working family (Wendy works as a clerk in a maternity clothing store), three of them are off to work in the morning while the disgruntled Nicola shows no signs of ambition, refusing to be an exploited worker, so she does no work at all, remaining aimless and bored for the most part, yet perfectly miserable, anxiously filled with nervous twitches, hair drawn down over her face, hiding behind her glasses, sneaking in a boyfriend during the day to have sex when everyone else is out, who turns out to be David Thewlis in a thankless role, always asked to leave immediately afterwards, never sticking around for anything more. Making a rather eccentric entrance is Timothy Spall as Aubrey, seemingly an old friend of the family, viewing himself as a Bohemian cool cat from the 50’s, yet he’s always restless and overanxious, flirting inappropriately with Nicola before making his way to the back yard. Andy and Aubrey share something in common, both food chefs aspiring to work for themselves, but going about it very differently. Both are hampered by the realities of life, stuck with who they are, limited and constrained, with a narrowing window of opportunity to realize their dreams. Andy dreams of a life away from the boring routine, stupidly investing in a broken-down food truck, while Aubrey’s plan is to open a nouveau cuisine restaurant, thinking he’s a “genius” chef, that if he builds it they will come in droves. So he opens the Regret Rien restaurant in the heart of town, asking Wendy to come waitress for him, as his regular waitress skipped off to Prague with her boyfriend, working with the ever dour sous-chef Paula (Moya Brady), who would be out of place in any environment, whose glum hangdog expression suggests a life of woe, the picture of the downtrodden, with no apparent concerns for health violations. Opening night has a customary anticipation to it, yet the unappetizing menu that Aubrey reads sounds utterly unthinkable, as it’s completely inedible, yet Aubrey is so confident of his culinary expertise. As Aubrey and Wendy share a glass of wine to help calm the nerves, Aubrey never stops drinking, first making the moves on the sous-chef in the kitchen, whose face never changes expression, before drinking himself into a stupor, making a complete ass of himself, screaming at the top of his lungs on the street in utter contempt for all the customers who never showed up before stripping off his clothes and expressing his lustful desires for Wendy. While she fends him off, he goes into grotesque mode, thoroughly exaggerated, destroying all the tables, turning them upside down, creating a chaotic mess as the night turns into an unmitigated disaster, with Aubrey left passed out on the restaurant floor (mumbling the name of Nicola) while Wendy makes a hasty exit, attempting to save Paula as well, but she’s clearly fixated on earlier fictitious promises made by Aubrey, both apparent soulmates of delusion and dysfunction.
Working for the first time with cinematographer Dick Pope, who would go on to shoot all of Leigh’s subsequent films, this is the first film to reach an international audience, establishing Leigh’s realist, working class style, where the rhythms of this family’s existence are informed by a dull routine, by a repetition of trained habits, which leads to a certain stagnation, feeling stifled by the banality of it all. Leigh resorts to comic exaggerations in how characters are depicted, yet this is a theatrical device that hides and often overshadows the humanity contained within. While the musical score is written by Rachel Portman, it repeats with a monotonous omnipresence, growing deliriously repetitive, which may have your brain seeking an alternative refuge, but it drives in the discomfort associated with this film, which Leigh has described as his least favorite. In contrast, Wendy always looks at the bright side, possessing an ability to turn any disaster into a positive experience. Unashamedly cheerful, she and the perpetually disillusioned Andy make a happy couple, proud of both of their girls, even as they are routinely the targets of Nicola’s ire. She receives her own comeuppance in the form of her boyfriend’s refusal to engage in the same sex routine, standing his ground, insisting on having a decent conversation instead, challenging Nicola to articulate her feelings and utter coherent thoughts in sentences instead of bitter critiques that sound more like slogans. This catches her offguard, even humiliated, which he takes full advantage of, finding herself at the end of a mercilessly critical tirade, which leaves her flummoxed. Even after the disastrous restaurant opening, Wendy comforts her daughter that she finds in tears, talking some sense into her, confronting how joyless and unhappy she has become (in stark contrast to that opening dance sequence with the kids), becoming the dramatic center of the film, as it’s done with such tender and loving care, urging her to rejoin the human race and become part of the living, none of whom have it easy, but at least they’re trying. Somehow countering all her deeply troubled, self-loathing critiques, Wendy’s affectionate concern for others is the star of the show, becoming an emotional revelation that reverberates with heartfelt intimacy. Embracing flaws and inadequacies as part of the human character, Wendy offers the thoughts of a mature being, someone who has lived through and survived her own share of personal crises, yet maintains a sweet optimism that includes an affirmation for life. As it turns out, more disasters are lurking, as if part of the life cycle, yet the manner in which you address these inevitable setbacks determines one’s quality of life, where you can become paralyzed and easily give up, griping over every issue and calling it all unfair, or you can roll with the punches and give yourself another shot at experiencing joy and happiness, embracing it when it comes, knowing how fleeting it can be, where what ultimately matters is a willingness to accept the bitter with the sweet.