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‘Life Is Sweet’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 27, 1991

In "Life Is Sweet," British director Mike Leigh creates a blissfully funny sitcom verite about life in lower-middle-class England. Following the day-to-day misadventures of a north London family, Leigh mines the world of the ordinary and finds a humorous but delicate human ore. In a way, this is the British, non-cartoon version of "The Simpsons."

In Andy's household, insults fly, banality reigns and the accents tread all over the Queen's English. Andy (Jim Broadbent), a genial, pint-tipping oaf, just blew the family savings on a rusting food trailer that he intends to transform into a profitable coffee-and-burger concern. His wife Wendy (Alison Steadman) tends to giggle uncontrollably at anything, funny or tragic. Sweetnatured daughter Natalie (Claire Skinner), a plumber's assistant, mouths quiet ironies.

Youngest Nicola (Jane Horrocks), a seething, unfocused teen revolutionary under her uncombed hair and cigarette smoke, rails at everyone. "What's lunchtime, anyway?" she says, refusing to join the family at the table. "It's only a convention."

Then there's Andy's mate, Aubrey (Timothy Spall). Picture this portly bloke, his chubby face like an anemic melon behind orange spectacles. His dream is to open a classy French bistro called Regret Rien. But his menu comes closer to gruesome than Gallic, with dishes such as Prune Quiche, Tongue in Rhubarb Hollandaise and Pork Cyst.

Initially, "Life" seems as depressing as it is funny, a satirical indictment of banality. These people are existential ostriches, head in the sands of triviality. Andy thinks, one day, he might do a bit of grouting. Then he says, " 'ang on, 'ang on. I ain't got no grout." Daughter Natalie, the plumber's assistant, says she can get some. Alright, Andy says, but she'd better make sure she's got the right kind. "There's grout and there's waterproof grout i'n't there?"

"Allow me to knowww," she says, the last word dipping low and resentful. The caustic comments continue. Mom continues to giggle. There's a wedge of sadness between every amusing rejoinder. Even the doorbell sounds weak and defeated. It's England all right.

But Leigh's characters aren't mere figures of disdainful fun. They evolve into touching beings. Aubrey opens that restaurant with disastrous, saddening consequences. His heartbreak is universal. When Aubrey's waitress stands him up, Wendy pitches in. Suddenly she's not a kookhead anymore. She's a saint. Goody-goody Natalie will have some sensitive confessions to make; and unapproachable Nicola, it turns out, is very vulnerable. At night she's a desperate bulimic.

Leigh has had an extraordinarily full-scale career in film, theater and television in the United Kingdom. He has a method of working with actors from the conceptual stage. They co-create their characters with him. This allows for an almost documentary drama; you watch characters evolve incrementally and, for every laugh, there's a catch in the throat too. As his characters achieve empathetic dimension, Leigh discovers the tragic beauty of the mundane.

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