What soured Mike Leigh on Life Is Sweet? Earlier this year the British writer-director recorded a commentary for the Criterion Collection DVD of his 1990 drama, and at the very end, as the credits are about to roll, he admits that it’s his least favorite of the films he’s made. Leigh doesn’t explain, and earlier in the commentary he seems quite proud of, even moved by, certain moments. I suppose that’s the luxury of being Britain’s greatest living filmmaker: when you’ve got a track record that includes Secrets & Lies (1996), Topsy-Turvy (1999), All or Nothing (2002), Vera Drake (2004), and Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), you can afford to be picky. Life Is Sweet may be a minor film for Leigh, more loosely plotted even than some of his early TV movies for the BBC, but by any other measure it’s a wonder, with unforgettable characters and a distinctive mix of comedy and real sorrow.
When Leigh was asked to write a short piece for the London film festival in 1990 explaining what Life Is Sweet was about, he responded, comically, with a long, alphabetical list of just about everything referenced in the film. But the two key subjects, he concedes, are parenthood and, more concretely, food. The central characters are a little family in a suburb north of London: good-natured Andy (Jim Broadbent) puts in long hours running a restaurant kitchen, while his lively wife, Wendy (Alison Steadman), holds down jobs at a children’s clothing shop and an after-school program; still living with them are their 22-year-old twin daughters, the boyish Natalie (Claire Skinner), happily employed as a plumber, and the unemployed, pathetically nervous, invariably scowling Nicola (Jane Horrocks), who unleashes her bile at the slightest provocation and takes her dinner in the living room while the others gather at the dining room table.
In an hour-long interview and Q&A at the National Film Theatre in 1991, included on the DVD as an audio track, Leigh named Frank Capra as one of his favorite Hollywood directors, and there isn’t too much of a leap from the wacky family in Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938) to the quartet of eccentrics banging around the modest little row house in Life Is Sweet. Wendy is one of those women who hold together a family through the sheer power of their positivity; she has an infectiously dirty laugh, and when she’s leading her little school charges in an aerobics routine, she mischievously gets them to shout out, “I want a five-pound note! So I can buy some sweets!” (Wendy is an obvious antecedent to the sunny working woman Sally Hawkins plays in Happy-Go-Lucky). Andy is a confirmed clown as well, and from their easy rapport you can tell they’ve been together for decades.
The daughters are now six years older than Wendy was when she got pregnant, and as Leigh observes of his own children, “They don’t turn out like you think they’re going to.” Natalie is the good child, a bookworm who favors men’s button-down shirts and cuts her flaming red hair like a boy’s; she describes herself to a coworker as “single and carefree,” and with her occupation all figured out, she’s eagerly planning a vacation in the States. Her neat clothes and grooming contrast with Nicola’s long, unkempt hair, rock T-shirts, and grubby overalls. Something has gone very wrong with Nicola; one night, as Natalie listens sadly from the next room, Nicola binges on candy bars and then jams a stick down her throat to vomit into a plastic bag. Her bulimia casts a different light on the ballet-themed knickknacks and photos of the little twins in dance leotards that Wendy dusts in the living room.
Life Is Sweet came along during a run of international dramas that associated food with love: Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985), Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (1987), Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). Yet for Andy, who hates his restaurant job, that love is less romantic than paternal: he shows his love for Wendy and the twins through the simple but crucial act of putting food on the table. Weaving through Life Is Sweet are two comic story lines involving the food business: Andy’s shifty drinking buddy, Patsy (Stephen Rea), cons him into buying a dilapidated snack-vending trailer, which Andy hopes to turn into a profitable side business, and Wendy, helping out their crackpot friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall), agrees to wait tables at his new restaurant, the Regret Rien (“regret nothing,” after the old Edith Piaf song). Both enterprises seem doomed to failure, but Andy and Aubrey are limited men in dire need of a dream.
Leigh has a distinctive creative process that has served him remarkably well over his career: he spends weeks rehearsing his actors and feeling his way into the characters with them before he actually writes the screenplay, which might explain why his characters are so incredibly vivid. The standout here is Spall, whose Aubrey is an outsize comic creation like some of Spike Lee’s characters in Do the Right Thing. He makes his first entrance at the family’s home wearing a San Francisco Giants jacket, a hip-hop cap turned rakishly off-center, and giant sunglasses, and obsessively tossing from hand to hand a pineapple he’s brought for Wendy. When she and Andy visit the fledgling restaurant, whose opening seems increasingly doubtful, Aubrey shows them a row of candles he’s using for decoration. “I’ve been trying to get them all the same length,” he explains, “but I keep forgetting to blow ’em out, you know, and have to start all over again. I’ve been through 12 boxes this week.”
For all the comic interludes, there’s an absolutely heartbreaking scene near the end in which Wendy tries to rouse Nicola from her torpor and Leigh reveals that Nicola’s bulimia has already landed her in the hospital, where she was close to death. One can’t really say why Nicola has become such a miserably unhappy woman; one can only fall back on Leigh’s comment that children may not grow into the people you were expecting. Life Is Sweet turned out to be an important film for Leigh—his first feature to receive wide international distribution, it established him as a filmmaker to watch—which makes his reticence toward it even more surprising. He does refer to his films as his children, however, and perhaps, like children, they don’t always turn out the way you think they’re going to.