In an interview at London’s National Film Theatre included on Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet, the director’s unidentified interlocutor breaks the ice by quoting a review in The Sunday Times calling him “the scourge of the lower middle classes.” Without missing a beat, Leigh drily responds, “I think it was The Observer.”
The charge stems, presumably, from Life Is Sweet’s theatrical style, which at times verges on the grotesque. As is normally the case with Leigh, the movie’s characters and plot were devised in collaboration with the actors, who spent nearly four months in preproduction before the first frame was shot. When Leigh is off his game, the result can seem like an introductory improv class run amok; when he’s on, it’s a delicate balancing act, allowing the actors to run with their characters, but just far enough.
At first glance, some of Life Is Sweet’s characters come off as caricatures: Stephen Rea’s drunken scammer arrives at the humble suburban house owned by Jim Broadbent and Alison Steadman in a paisley shirt and baggy double-breasted suit, missing only a sign around his neck reading “Do Not Trust”; self-proclaimed culinary artist Timothy Spall plans a restaurant whose bill of fare includes jumbo shrimp on a bed of jam and something called pork cyst; Broadbent and Steadman’s sullen daughter Jane Horrocks speaks in a perpetual sneer—think Edward G. Robinson in a Smiths T-shirt—and barks political slogans whose import she plainly fails to grasp. It’s not just that Leigh encourages the audience not to take these characters seriously: He practically demands it.
As the movie develops, though, the tables start to turn. Broadbent seems at first like an affable buffoon, swindled by Rea into seeing a dilapidated food truck as his ticket out of a dead-end job. But then Leigh shows us Broadbent at work, not punching a clock on an assembly line but running a sleekly efficient restaurant kitchen. As Spall’s goofball dreams collide with reality, he becomes a figure of tragedy, not fun. And without revealing too much, it’s safe to say that Horrocks’ comic petulance serves as a proxy for deeper, altogether less amusing pathologies.
Life Is Sweet was Leigh’s second theatrical feature after a long career making films for British television, and though its vivid color palette (captured by cinematographer Dick Pope) adds to its heightened tone, the filmmaking sometimes lapses into a purely functional visual language. (In group scenes, the cuts simply leap from one speaker to the next.) But there’s a sense in which Leigh is playing rope-a-dope with the kitchen-sink genre, lulling the audience with familiar trappings while he lines up the next big punch. Rachel Portman’s score mixes the joyful lilt of an oboe with a theremin’s unearthly wail and the tingle of a bouzouki—not exactly the soundtrack you’d find attached to a contemporary movie by Ken Loach or Alan Clarke. The hybrid creates a new genre: magic social realism.
Leigh’s tragedies have generally gotten more respect than his comedies, but by joining Naked and Topsy-Turvy in Criterion’s pantheon, the new edition of Life Is Sweet helps restore the balance.
Also this week:
In an otherwise slow week, Olive Films releases a spate of relatively unheralded library titles, including three starring John Wayne: Lady From Louisiana, In Old California, and Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command, which was Wayne’s first leading role after his Stagecoach breakthrough. The File On Thelma Jordon calls to noir fans with the tantalizing combination of Barbara Stanwyck and director Robert Siodmak, while aficionados of sharp-edged comedy can savor The Grass Is Greener’s combination of director Stanley Donen and a cast that includes Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, and Jean Simmons, plus Robert Mitchum as a brash American millionaire. Perhaps less well-suited are low-budget showman William Castle and famed mime Marcel Marceau (as a mute puppeteer who discovers he can turns corpses into human marionettes) in Shanks.
Cate Shortland’s Lore (Music Box Films) revisits World War II through the eyes of a Nazi officer’s daughter, calmly confronting German war guilt while questioning the extent to which a child raised in the Third Reich could see outside her world. “From the director of Legion and Priest” doesn’t make much of a selling point, so it’s not surprising Scott Stewart’s Dark Skies (Starz/Anchor Bay) took a critical pounding. But the movie turns out to be a solid genre offering with occasional moments of inspiration, and a performance by Keri Russell that almost adds more realism than the film can bear.