Life Is Sweet
1990, R, 103 min. Directed by Mike Leigh. Starring Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent, Claire Skinner, Jane Horrocks, Stephen Rea, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 13, 1992
The title of this movie proclaims that life is sweet. It's meant to be taken with a touch of irony, I think, something more like bittersweet. It also refers to the film's overall obsession with food and all its emotional by-products. This British dramedy is a slice-of-life study. For the follow-up to his 1988 international breakthrough film High Hopes, director Leigh chooses a modestly middle-class family from a London suburb as his focus. The movie simply observes them, there's no overall plot or narrative progression. Given Leigh's socialist bent, Life Is Sweet pays more attention than is customary to the economic aspects of this lower-middle class family's existence, but never in an overt or programmatic way. Work is shown as something very real and very tangible, as something one does whether one wants to or not and whether one enjoys it or not. Not that this family dwells on such thinking; in fact, they are not contemplative sorts at all – though they certainly couldn't be called mindless sheep either. Andy, the Dad (Broadbent), works as a cook in an institutional restaurant (there's that food theme again), abandoning dreams of chefdom when his young girlfriend becomes pregnant with twins. Happily married, though perhaps at an earlier age than they would have preferred, the couple has forged a comfortable, if cramped, life in the suburban row house. Andy, we can tell, still harbors “high hopes.” He has endless unfinished plans for fixing up the house and, much to everyone's dislike, he purchases a broken-down old lunch wagon that speaks revealingly of his dreams. Mom Wendy (Steadman – who is also director Leigh's wife), is a woman who laughs too easily and cheerfully balances her life between her family's needs and her jobs as a saleswoman in a children's clothing store and an aerobics instructor to tubby girls. The twins, Natalie (Skinner) and Nicola (Horrocks) are the most interesting characters in the movie. Natalie is an ambiguously androgynous sort who has chosen a career as a professional plumber. Nicola is a bulimic (and, perhaps, agoraphobic) whose eating disorders have also marked her sex life. She has chosen to stay at home and write all day, though she never does. She curtails all conversation by responding with abrupt political slogans or a simple “Bollocks.” Her body is a distressing frenzy of nervous twitching and hand fluttering. Then there's the side story of the family friend Aubrey (Spall) who disasterously opens a haute cuisine restaurant. Life Is Sweet observes this constellation of people without ever really commenting on their lots. Very little occurs and thus, if you don't find yourself drawn to these characters, you will find yourself wondering when it will all be over. I'll go one step further and say that I actively disliked these characters and found spending time with them to be an unpleasant experience. Visually, shots are framed extremely tightly (no doubt affected by Leigh's extensive and distinguished career as a TV director), only exacerbating the feeling of being claustrophobically trapped with these characters. I would, however, be remiss were I not to note that my reaction seems fairly idiosyncratic. Most viewers of Life Is Sweet have extremely positive reactions. But, for me, I felt as though I had been sucking on something sour.