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‘Life Stinks’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 27, 1991

The title of the new Mel Brooks comedy is "Life Stinks," and brother, does it ever -- the movie, that is. Life, contrary to this experience, does NOT stink. Life is wondrous. Beauteous. Rapturous. Just keep telling yourself that. Think of your favorite things (maybe that will get the hideous memory of this thing out of your head): There's Satchmo and James Brown. There's P.G. Wodehouse and the Pieta. There's the Demi Moore cover of "Vanity Fair."

Once upon a time, Mel Brooks would have made that list. Once upon a time he was hilarious. And can still be, in interview, which is his true art form. But for some time now, his movies have not even cruised near the neighborhood of funny. And this one is the bottom of the barrel.

The plot is driven by a wager between two billionaires. One is named Goddard Bolt (Brooks), and he was born into a fortune that he has parlayed, by sheer ruthlessness and greed, into one of the largest in the world. His dream is to demolish a large skid row section of Los Angeles in order to build an ultra-modern commercial center and name it after himself.

The only rub is that he owns just half the land needed to start construction, and the man who owns the other half, his arch rival, Vance Craswell (Jeffrey Tambor), has a dream city of his own in mind. Each tries to buy the other out, but it's no go until Craswell bets Bolt that he cannot survive for 30 days on the streets he plans to raze, without money or credit cards or the use of any of his financial power. If he wins, he gets the other half of the property. If he loses, his half goes to Craswell.

In writing their story, Brooks, Rudy De Luca and Steve Haberman have borrowed liberally from "The Prince and the Pauper," plus movies like "Sullivan's Travels" and "My Man Godfrey." And what they were aiming for, one guesses, was a kind of modern fable in which a powerful, heartless man is humbled and regains his humanity (while retaining his enormous wealth, of course). But the mood of the film is too crass to reach the level of fairy tale. The picture gives the impression that the filmmakers thought that homelessness was cute and that those ratty back streets and alleyways were filled with darling eccentrics. This is one of the unfunniest of subjects for comedy, and while there may be a graceful way of tackling it, Brooks and his compatriots haven't discovered it.

Added to this, Brooks has never been as charmless onscreen as he is here; Bolt is a swine and we feel not the slightest trace of sympathy for him, even when it appears that he is truly down and out. When he's dumped into a trash bin and showered with garbage, we feel he deserves it. After all, Brooks has done the same to us.

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