Some of my favorite comedies of the modern era are ones which examine a sort of sad-sack loser or melancholic group and which add a touch of warmth and whimsy which cuts through the dry, deadpan atmosphere. Films by Wes Anderson, or Aki Kaurismaki and Jim Jarmusch fall into this category where the sadness and disappointment of daily life are viewed with a slight chagrin. Thus there is tragedy in the comedy and comedy in the tragedy. I'm not sure why I like this kind of comedy so much. Perhaps the self deprecating tone is the sarcastic selling point. Mike Leigh’s 1990 masterpiece, Life is Sweet (even the title is brutally sarcastic), is one of the greatest films of this type that I know of. Coupling his understanding of how to incorporate a seemingly "improvised" feel to real-life situations with an absurd hilarity of human nature, Leigh created a beautiful document of a family who loves each other through thick and thin and captures the beauty and pain of life.
Featuring his wife at the time Alison Steadman in the lead role, Mike Leigh’s film concerns a particular family who is not so much dysfunctional as actually rather normal. I mean what family isn’t somewhat dysfunctional? Steadman stars as Wendy and Jim Broadbent is Andy, parents of twin, twenty-something daughters named Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks), who both still live at home. Wendy leads dance classes among other odd jobs and Andy is a gullible man, who has a steady cook’s job, but who continues to get conned into random investments by his friend and drinking buddy, Patsy (Stephen Rea). In this particular instance, Patsy gets him to buy a broken down lunch trailer, which gets parked in their driveway. The twins are quite something. Natalie, the tomboy, is the more “together” one, holding a steady plumbing job and dreaming of traveling to America. Nicola is the bulimic and depressed one, constantly fuming about people being “fascist” or “racist” or “sexist” or some other “ist”. Thrown into the mix is the family friend and overly ambitious Aubrey (an absolutely hilarious Timothy Spall), who has plans to open a new gourmet restaurant. All of these characters intertwine in random situations and the vignette-like nature of the film takes on the flavor of life, each day bringing its own challenges, laughs, and tears.
One of Leigh's major achievements is his brilliant casting in the film. There is not a miscast role here. Broadbent is perfect as the rather henpecked husband/father who never seems to be able to finish any project he starts. Claire Skinner and especially Jane Horrocks play off each other brilliantly as sisters who pick on each other, yet who bury their love and care for the other just under the surface. As I mentioned, Timothy Spall’s fat and sexually desperate Aubrey is so hilariously droll and unawares, that I have a hard time keeping it together when he’s onscreen, with his awful hat and jacket choices, as well as his pathetic 80’s looking suit that he wears on the opening night of his restaurant when he’s getting totally wasted and attempting to make love to Wendy, who volunteers to be his hostess for the evening. The most brilliant performance in the film, is in fact Alison Steadman’s Wendy, a perpetually positive woman, trying to encourage her family to follow their dreams, whilst wanting everyone to be happy. I love the way she seems to laugh through everything she says in the film. It’s rather engaging and hilarious to watch her work her way through interactions, particularly with her husband as they tease and cajole each other and clearly love each other. It’s one of the more humorous and touching husband/wife relationships I’ve seen on film. Her performance is warm and feminine engaging….one of the best performances in any film I’ve watched in some time.
Leigh’s script is built upon each of these personalities, giving them things to say that feels real and unforced. His brevity of pacing doesn’t leave any dull moment in the film. Each scene builds off of a comedy-of-life situation. Adding most of the tragicomic elements is the character of Nicola, played with bracing sadness and combativeness by Jane Horrocks, whose depression and health issues cause great concern to her family, particularly her mother. A scene near the end of the film where Wendy confronts Nicola regarding her problems, stating that she just wants her to be happy is the most heartfelt moment in the film. Seemingly inspired by American sitcoms, the film has a lived-in vibe that is hard to achieve in a feature-length film. Usually this depth of character understanding and deft interaction has to be built over the length of a television series, as the audience begins to understand quirks of the characters. Leigh seems to be able to throw a character like Patsy and Aubrey into the mix and we don’t need to know why or how they came to be friends of the family; they just seem to fit and we acknowledge we’ve known people like this who just pop over for a chat. They’re sort of like the furniture….always there. This film is probably the prime example of Leigh's comedic ability, and is as funny as any film I’ve seen in years.