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‘Life Is Sweet’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 27, 1991

The world that British director Mike Leigh creates in his sublime new comedy "Life Is Sweet" has a quality of miraculous, fragile spontaneity. Everything in this gently brilliant film seems to take place right before your eyes, without the intervention of aesthetic planning or direction. It simply happens in the moment, as if the characters were actually living on screen. This allows us to observe the daily life of an emphatically average, lower-middle-class Middlesex family without feeling that the events have been staged for our benefit; he creates a style of dramatic verite that's completely without mechanism. It's as if Leigh had quietly lifted the rooftop off their unremarkable little house and allowed us to peek in.

What we observe is both a chronicle of their ordinariness and proof that -- at least as far as families are concerned -- no such thing as "ordinary" actually exists. All the family members, and their extended circle of friends, have the freshness of newly minted personalities. Wendy (Alison Steadman), the mother, is an irrepressibly upbeat perpetual-motion machine. She talks a saucy blue streak, commenting and joking about her life as she's living it. She teaches a dancercise class for tots and works in a kiddie-clothing store, prattling away a mile a minute about the astrological signs of her infant customers, or sweets, or whatever else comes into her head, every phrase punctuated by her honking, nasal laugh.

At home, she dotes on her husband, Andy (Jim Broadbent), an institutional chef whose tortoise-paced rhythms provide a slow-mo counterpoint to her effervescent quickstep. Andy always has a handful of projects underway in his work shed, but they never seem to make it far past the planning stage. As Wendy describes him, Andy has two gears, "dead slow and stop," but there's no impatience in her gibes. There's life in the man and a sly sense of fun, and Wendy loves him for it. They make a perfectly complementary pair.

Their twin daughters, Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks), are less well adjusted and something short of complementary. Natalie, whose strawberry-blond hair is cropped short like a boy's, works as a plumber and specializes in droll bons mots, delivered in a deadly thick working-class drawl. She's a scrappy lass, devoted to her parents, with whom she spends most of her time, but with dreams of her own. There's a palpable sadness in her, though, that we sense has something to do with the deplorable state of her twin. Nicola is a flat-out disaster, a scruffy, virulent waif with a pony's mane of unkempt reddish hair who disapproves of her lot in life. Rarely venturing out, she slouches around the house, brooding and spitting out insults at her parents and her sister.

As she drags feverishly on her cigs, her fingers fluttering nervously around her face and body, Nicola shoots off frustrated anger like a sputtering power line. Rail-thin, she frets about her weight, hiding her body in billowing overalls and T-shirts (emblazoned with slogans like "Bollocks the Poll Tax"); on the sly, in her room at night, she binges on chocolate bars and junk food, then barfs them up into the waste bin. And during the day, her boyfriend regularly drops by for a quickie and is forced, while suffering a torrent of abuse, to tie her up and lick chocolate sauce off her naked body.

Nicola lives under the shadow of her own thundercloud, but the rest of the family doesn't allow her storms to rain on their parade. They're worried about her, but they accept her tantrums as a fact of life. This is part of her frustration -- Nicola wants to rattle the tea-cupboard and shake loose the plaster, but Leigh has her family react indifferently, which only makes her more and more angry.

Leigh allows his story to flow naturally out of the characters, and we're never quite sure where the narrative current is going to take us. Anything and everything seems possible, in particular when neighborhood wackos like Aubrey (Timothy Spall) show up at the front door, blithely tossing a pineapple from hand to hand. Aubrey, who's a gourmet chef only days away from opening his own restaurant, is so socially awkward that he seems to have just arrived on the planet. Sitting with Nicola in the living room, he incessantly bobs his head as if he were listening to some invisible Walkman, searching desperately all the while for some shred of small talk to advance his interest in the fidgety girl.

With Aubrey's arrival, Leigh shifts his focus to him and away from the family. And, initially, there's some resentment in having to abandon -- even momentarily -- these engrossing anomalies. But Aubrey is such a fantastically anomalous creation in his own right that our irritation quickly turns to fascination. Aubrey, whose hipster lingo sounds like blubbery baby talk, is a dreamer with visions of pork cyst and tripe souffle dancing in his head. He's ardently anti-mainstream, but nevertheless convinced that there are others just like him out there in the world just dying for a bit of tongue with rhubarb hollandaise.

There are none, of course -- not in this world or any other -- and the venture is a fiasco. Aubrey gets hammered and manhandles Wendy, who has cheerfully volunteered to waitress. A little shaken, Wendy comes home to find Andy stinking drunk too, his legs jutting out of the dilapidated lunch-wagon -- another of his "projects" -- he's bought from a wheeler-dealer pal. Finally, she's fed up. Enough, after all, is enough.

With the dawn, though, her optimism and good spirits are restored. And it's this sense of ongoing life, of daily ebb and flow, that gives Leigh's work its singular appeal. His work with actors verges on the supernatural. Everyone in the cast is terrific, Steadman and Horrocks in particular. In one masterly scene, mother and daughter have it out, and the electricity and frankness -- and the matter-of-factness -- are completely unlike what we're used to in conventional movies. Leigh and Horrocks take us to the chancy edge of Nicola's dementia, out where there are no answers. That is where Leigh operates best. The movie doesn't build to any resolution; it allows its characters to continue in their everyday way, dealing with the muddled up combination of contentment and pain as they always have, minute by minute. Leigh hasn't the affect of a poet, but he's a poet nonetheless. This movie captures the smallish details in life that perhaps you've felt before, but have never before seen on screen. He has a genius for the commonplace. It is truly sweet stuff.

Copyright The Washington Post

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