In this era of slob humor and assault comedy, it's a pleasure to stumble across a movie that comes at you as obliquely - slyly, even - as Mike Leigh's offbeat Life Is Sweet. This wry slice of life, filmed in the north London suburb of Enfield, concerns the quiet misadventures of a lower-middle-class family that doesn't quite realize the kind of trouble it's in. We come to realize it, though, and therein lies the movie's deepest reward.
Andy (Jim Broadbent) is a dreamy layabout who undertakes projects (house repairs, renovation of a rusty lunch van) that overwhelm him before he can begin to make progress. Wendy (Alison Steadman) works two jobs and puts up a dazzling smile, a brave front, and a torrent of energy. But the tide of events (her kids' defiance, the fiasco of a foolish friend's restaurant opening) is always driving her backward. The couple's teen-age children are a wonderfully incompatible set of redheaded twins who give the movie most of its tone and texture. Natalie (Claire Skinner) is a quiet, serious girl who peers out, bewildered, from behind frameless glasses. Nicola (Jane Horrocks) is a tempest, a master of repartee who responds to the most innocuous slights with cascades of political invective. She's part brat, part revolutionist, and the brains of the family. Nicola also harbors a couple of major secrets upstairs in the family's humble row house, which endears her to us all the more.
Nothing earthshaking happens in Life Is Sweet. Its plot is almost indiscernible, but its emotions are not. For director Leigh (High Hopes) carries us along on a stream of carefully observed moments and telling details - Nicola unlocking the case that conceals her secret cache of chocolates; the slapstick folly of the pudgy family friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) when the opening of his French restaurant, Regret Rien, degenerates into a drunken housewrecking; the moment at which Andy slips in a kitchen, then sees in the minor misfortune of a broken leg the fateful instrumentation of a serving spoon "that was waiting to change the course of a man's life." There is also a mother-daughter conversation that defies all the conventions of such ritual; in it, all the disparate spirits of this elusive comedy suddenly come together.
To be sure, Life Is Sweet hits and misses. There are odd stretches of tedium between its cockeyed, unexpected eruptions of domestic comedy, and the vivid cast's difficult Middlesex accents may at times have audiences on this side of the Atlantic straining toward the screen. But Leigh has a real gift for simultaneously touching the heart, the funny bone, and the cerebral cortex that you won't find in many other moviemakers. Life Is Sweet works its own sweet way, and we come to accept it.
LIFE IS SWEET
Written and directed by Mike Leigh; with Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent, Claire Skinner, and Jane Horrocks.