Life is Sweet (1990)

5 09 2013

Mike Leigh has built his reputation on providing realistic, slice-of-life portraits. I mention this banal phrase, because I feel there’s enough evidence to contrast this claim. Certainly, the filmmaker has the ability to capture fractured moments of truth, but a film such as this one suggests that his character, even if they are interesting, are actually drawn rather broadly. At times, Life is Sweet feels like a sad cartoon. Leigh has found something heartbreaking within these stories, but the characters themselves seem to be missing a depth that would elevate the film beyond just heightened emotional experience. There’s enough interesting things to digest here (no pun intended) but it’s not a harrowing experience like Naked or Bleak Moments. It’s quietly sad movie about loud characters.

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Nicola and Natalie are twins in their twenties, but they’re still living with their parents, Andy and Wendy  Natalie works as a plumber, and has a generally calm demeanor. Nicola is unemployed, and constantly on edge. Andy is a professional cook, but his personal project is a beat-up fast food van, which he hopes to update and maintain. Meanwhile, family friend Aubrey also has a food project, he’s opening a rather garish French-themed restaurant. Wendy volunteers to help, but Aubrey’s own incompetence suggests that the restaurant itself is doomed.

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Leigh himself calls Life is Sweet an ensemble piece, and I am inclined to agree, but unfortunately this is where the film runs into some problems. The biggest problem of all being Timothy Spall’s performance as Aubrey. Everybody’s characteristics are heightened here, but even he seems jarringly simplistic. In fact, simplistic doesn’t get to the root of that character’s problem, it’s instead that he feels like a reoccurring character from a sitcom. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if the film didn’t devote so much time to him. There’s something a little bit sad about him waiting in his own restaurant on opening day, but that seems to come from the context of anyone’s hopes being dashed. He makes such a buffoon of himself, throughout the film and especially following the restaurant’s poor opening that it challenges one’s sympathy. Maybe this is a credit to Leigh, but in reality, it’s hard to not be relieved by his failure.

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The most frustrating part of Aubrey’s presence is that it takes time away from what actually is a pretty interesting family study. Nicola is drawn a little too thin as a psuedo-activist, but at least she’s given time. Natalie, who seems the most well-adjusted person in the entire film, is given very few moments that flesh her out. Maybe this is what motivates Leigh to spend more time on the rest of the family, but we only get hints about her. We know she’s going to America for vacation and we know she enjoys playing pool. On the commentary, Leigh mentions that her outlook is healthy and this is referring to a conversation she has with Nicola. The implication is that she really is just the “healthy” foil to Nicola, who struggles with an eating disorder. It reduces Nicola too, suggesting that she just needs to “get it together” to be like her model sister.

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There’s some positives to be found here, of course. I mean, I do think the family itself is interesting enough. Andy is playfully revealed to be a competent and professional chef, somewhat of a twist when the film sets him up as a wage laborer. Wendy has one particularly wonderful moment with Nicola towards the end, and her frustration with her daughter feels like a mother’s frustrating love. Leigh is able to capture isolated moments that feel real and tender, but it feels sort of wrong in the film’s context. For every breakdown Nicola has with her mom, there’s another scene of Aubrey drunkenly knocking things over. Maybe there’s some perverse pleasure to be found in miserable characters making morons of themselves (this is what Leigh’s wonderful Abigail’s Party does) but it comes at the expense of what could be a great family drama.

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Leigh does provide something vital here, which makes the film worthwhile, but in addition to Aubrey’s hijinx, there is a nagging sensation that the film is weirdly conservative. He’s not a polemic filmmaker, but there’s a tension here that suggests a quiet resignation to neoliberalism. If it’s intentional, it’s brilliant and absolutely heartbreaking. However, the simplistic morality stuff seems too deeply coded into the film to separate it from Leigh himself. Nicola seems to recycle standard feminist and leftist rhetoric, but the humor comes from the fact that she’s just reciting phrases. When called out on her personal politics, she collapses into a ball of rage. The greatest sadness comes from the fact that she’s so frustrated and hurt but can’t articulate herself in an adequate way. It’s played up as humor here, though. She’s passionate about her politics, but the characters ask why she isn’t marching in the streets. The answer is pretty plain and simple: she’s dealing with emotional and mental issues that she refuses to share with anyone else. Maybe I’ve become something of a softie, but Leigh’s dealing with her isn’t as consistently warm as I think it should be. The moment she has with Wendy is fantastic, but it’s hard to forget the rest of the film which usually frames her as foolish. There are some exceptions to this, though, the most obvious example being the scene where she binge-eats and vomits.

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The “I would have done this” instead is one of the laziest and unhelpful critical routes, but I get the feeling that Leigh would have been on to something wonderful had he eliminated some of the broad humor here. The Aubrey character can exist, but doesn’t need to dominate a section of the story the way that he does. The sisters themselves need more time, if only because Leigh has made them so fascinating with the limited time he has managed to give them. Everything concludes in a weirdly upbeat manner, though the conclusion itself is open-ended enough to suggest that not everything is okay. Still, the jaunty tone doesn’t seem to benefit the film’s best moments, but it does explain its worst ones. Maybe this is why Leigh’s next full-length feature would be his grimmest since his debut. This isn’t a bad film, but it’s one I have to wrestle with in the context of Leigh’s career. I admire it and I still love him as a filmmaker, but it’s not his most essential piece.

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