DVD Review: Life Is Sweet

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Mike Leigh | CAST: Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent, Jane Horrocks, Claire Skinner, Timothy Spall, Stephen Rae, David Thewlis
RELEASE DATE: 5/28/13 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES:
Mike Leigh audio commentary; Leigh audio interview; quintet of “Five-Minute Films”
SPECS:
NR | 103 min. | Comedy-Drama | 1:85:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 2.0

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

At one point in his lively audio commentary recorded especially for the Criterion release of Life Is Sweet, filmmaker Mike Leigh (Another Year) refers to his 1990 slice of life movie as “an extraordinarily daft film.” He’s not being unnecessarily cruel or inaccurate, as this picture belongs to the period in his career (pre-Secrets and Lies) in which he blended broadly drawn, cartoon-like characters with thoroughly realistic workaday men and women whose dilemmas are our own.

The result of this blend — which he perfected during several years of making tele-films — were works that were most definitely, as a critic interviewing Leigh here calls them, “serious comedies.” His later films, which are populated by sympathetic (or at least recognizably realistic) characters, are splendid character studies. But these earlier works that jump back and forth between farce and drama constitute their own sub-genre and demonstrate Leigh’s storytelling prowess at its most agile.

Here the three plot strands all revolve around food: a suburban dad (Jim Broadbent, The Iron Lady) who works as a chef makes an impulse purchase of a food truck he wants to refurbish and turn into the family business; his rather odd friend (Timothy Spall, Wake Wood) opens a seemingly doomed French restaurant in their small North London suburb; and the chef’s daughter (Jane Horrocks) hides her bulimia from her family.

Claire skinner (l.) and Jane Horrocks in Life Is Sweet.

The French restaurant plot thread is played as an all-out comedy, with Spall contributing a memorably loopy comedic turn. The family plotlines move back and forth between light and dark tones, with the perennially chuckling mom (Leigh’s then-wife Allison Steadman) eventually revealed to be the glue that holds them all together.

Leigh’s brilliant work with actors is one of the most important components of his filmmaking. Here the cast is uniformly excellent, with the younger performers (Horrocks and Claire Skinner as twins in their early 20s, Naked’s David Thewlis as Horrocks’ boyfriend) lend a level of earnestness to their characters, while Steadman and Broadbent expertly incarnate their characters, who joke constantly to cover up some very serious concerns.

The obvious reasons why the performers in Leigh’s films shine so brightly is because they work with him on creating their characters. His unique and much-written-about method of working is to construct a script only after several weeks of discussion and rehearsal with the actors have taken place. Here the performances are perfectly complemented by Rachel Portman’s evocative musical score.

The three supplements included in the package, as well as an informative print essay by critic David Sterritt are all very welcome. A sequence of “Five-Minute Films,” made for a BBC project that never got off the ground, are great examples of Leigh’s careful character delineation.

A 1991 audio interview conducted at London’s National Film Theatre finds Leigh being extremely friendly and a slight bit cranky. On the other hand, his audio commentary track is full of anecdotes and reflections on his process.

Leigh confesses that the final confrontation between Steadman and Horrocks in the film still has the ability to make him cry. Thus it comes as something of a surprise when he tells us at the end of the commentary that he finds Life Is Sweet both “moving” and “disappointing.” He closes out, noting that the film that has just deeply amused and touched us (and presumably him as well) is his “least favorite” of all his pictures. The man is nothing if not honest.

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”