In order to destroy and rebuild a dilapidated neighborhood, a rich and callous businessman wagers that he can survive penniless for thirty days in the slums of Los Angeles.
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Taking a break from his signature style of sensational parodies, Mel Brooks did some soul searching for his tenth directorial feature and discovered a voice ignored that needed to be heard: the homeless individual who was left stranded and abandoned in the streets.
“It’s always nice to say something about the social dynamics of a time instead of merely having fun with the human foibles which comes from doing a comedy,” said Mr. Brooks, who co-wrote the script with Steve Haberman and long-time collaborator Rudy De Luca (Vinnie the Robot from “Spaceballs”).
Citing the recession from the late 1980’s as inspiration for the story, Brooks and company felt that “Life Stinks” was their opportunity for some light-hearted commentary regarding the nation’s plague of homelessness.
While Mel Brooks’ heart was in the right place with “Life Stinks” (which was originally called “Life Sucks”, but was re-named at the studio’s insistence), his normally reliable sense of dead-on comic timing seems off-kilter and forced here. Typical of a Brooks slapstick comedy, the characters are exposed without any believable sense of emotion or thought. But against the backdrop of this human compassion story, this lack of connectivity desperately hurts the production value of the story. And we don’t feel a whole lot like laughing.
“My directing style comes from Vittoria De Sica, who has absolutely no style and never cared about style, but always cared about character, humanity, and storytelling,” continues Mr. Brooks.
That statement could never be more apparent after analyzing the production value of any Brooks feature. Like many of his previous films, “Life Stinks” presents itself more like an afternoon sitcom than a theatrical feature. The film is filled with hideously distracting fade-outs dissolving one scene to the next. And, of course, many of the scenes consist of wide shots with minimal cuts and bad close-ups. While his legions of fans will certainly overlook his lack of effective staging and lighting, they will not forgive him for forgetting a critical necessity in comedy. Is it funny?
Audiences and reviewers did not seem to think so. While many critics credited Mr. Brooks for undertaking such a noble and humanitarian topic, they had to be honest with their readers and say that this movie is not as funny as his traditional farce.
And the audiences believed them. “Life Stinks” earned only a little over four million bucks, almost one-third of what it cost to make.
“Life Stinks” begins with Brooks stampeding his way toward the camera and into his mega-million dollar office suite as Goddard Bolt, the definition of the toupeed and conservative businessman from the 1980’s. Bolt is an urban developer bent on uprooting an impoverished neighborhood in ghetto L.A., thereby vanquishing its destitute inhabitants.
In a rushed plot development, Bolt’s nemesis, Vance Crasswell (played with superb sleaziness by comic master Jeffrey Tambor) makes a bet with Bolt. If he can exist on these apocalyptic streets for one month without dipping into his own checkbook, Bolt wins the right to claw up the neighborhood with his army of bulldozers unchallenged.
And here begins the trendy element of the story. Like Joel McCrea’s character in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels”, Bolt discovers not only hardship and starvation as a penniless hobo, but friendliness and camaraderie in his fellow homeless man.
Howard Morris (Professor Lilloman from “High Anxiety”) gives a fairly impressive performance as Sailor, one of Bolt’s newfound friends, who meets with tragedy as an immediate cough develops during a rainstorm. Later, as his ashes are spread into a stream of gutter seawater, Brooks channels one of his best comic routines from his days as a writer of “Your Show of Shows”. But like so much else in the movie, the punchline appears to be missing. After a gust of wind blows Sailor’s ashes back into his coat pockets, Bolt merely walks out of frame shaking his friend’s remains out of his sleeves without offering the joke about the Laundromat.
Lesley Ann Warren plays Molly, a disgruntled bag lady with a flare for the theatrical. She and Brooks actually share one of the film’s only relaxing moments: a dance sequence featuring them both gliding through a vacant warehouse with seemingly unrehearsed fluidity. The scene invokes many memories of MGM classical musicals, which happens to be Brooks’ favorite genre.
If there is any scene in this movie that can get a laugh out of its audience, it is the physical comedy unleashed between Brooks and De Luca, who shows up in the third act as a rival homeless man determined to outdo Bolt in his ranting and raving.
Again, the timing is a bit off, but the physical gameplay between the two actors (both seasoned comedians) is at least enjoyable. Imagine the Three Stooges without Larry and you’ll get the gist of it.
In the commentary for this movie, Mel Brooks tells a story about the filming of “Blazing Saddles”. When faced with the reality that he was portraying the beloved cowboy genre in its most vulgar and gastric form, he confided in producer John Calley, who was running Warner Bros. at the time. According to Brooks, Calley told him: “Mel, if you’re going to step up to the bell, then ring it.”
“Life Stinks” is a noble picture for Mr. Brooks’ filmography. It is a gentle commentary from a concerned filmmaker in a time when societal neglect of the nation’s impoverished was at an all-time high. It is different from his previous films in that it is not an uncivilized parody, nor is it particularly funny. Being a lifelong fan of Mel Brooks, that hurts to write. I do not mean to say that this is a bad movie. It’s just not his best. And I hope he takes notice of what did not work this time and ring the living hell out of that bell the next time.