I don't exactly know how sweet these people's lives are, but I can see where a mistake would be made, because with these folks' lifestyles, their teeth are bound to rot out. Oh no, I don't necessarily mean that these people are so struggling that they have serious hygiene problems, as much as I mean that they don't have too much worse hygiene than the usual Brit. This side of working-class life in London isn't quite "Naked" bleak, but it's still Mike Leigh telling us all that England isn't exactly crackerjack, even for Jim Broadbent. I don't care how upset Broadbent gets, because he's always bound to put you into a bit of a perky mood, so maybe Leigh didn't make the best decision when he hooked Broadbent up with Alison Steadman in this film. It was years after this film before Leigh and Steadman divorced, but I'd imagine Steadman thought about how much more charming her home life with Broadbent would be than hers with pessimistic ol' Leigh, no matter how much Leigh tried to make her think otherwise through this film. Well, maybe this film isn't all that pessimistic, although it is realistic, and in a lot of cases, reality can be worse than you'd think, especially when you're stuck with fast-food vans, one daughter who is a plumber, and another daughter who is bulimic, and probably can't understand even what you are saying. Man, the Brits do have it a little rough, so it's a good thing this film is funny, and I'm not just saying that because there is plenty to challenge your attention in this film extending beyond the indistinctive accents.
There isn't really much to develop with these characters, yet there's still something kind of undercooked about them, to where they often feel like thin types in the context of a story that is a little loosely set in reality, and feels a little histrionic due to your not being able to get all that firmly invested. If the underdevelopment doesn't get you invested enough to embrace the story of limited believability, it doesn't get you invested enough to get over how blasted obnoxious these reasonably well-drawn and very well-portrayed characters are, because whether it be Alison Steadman's cloyingly loud Wendy, or Jim Broadbent's overly well-intentioned Andy, or Claire Skinner's sassy Natlie, or Jane Horrock's aggravatingly creepy, sexist, spiteful, lazy, and altogether self-centered Nicola, the leads - admittedly made all the more challenging by abrasive North London accents - tend to try your patience throughout a meandering narrative. The film is more-or-less driven by filler, punctuated by only so much of a sense of plot progression, but if nothing else hinders a sense of momentum, it's the British dryness of Mike Leigh's storytelling. Leigh always has something to work with, so no matter how much he dries things out, the film never dull, and rarely less than fun, but it's still only fun in a very British sense, remaining aimless with all of its subdued unraveling of a minimalist story. The weightier aspects which define the heart of this film are here, but they take their time kicking in, as this dramedy is primarily about average folks going about average lifestyles with only so much conflict, and only so much going on at all. The final product is simply rather inconsequential, as its story is thin and its storytelling is either undercooked or draggy, and anchored by obnoxious characters who help in making the film something of a challenge. Still, this is a challenge reasonably worth taking on, because no matter how problematic the film is, as I said, it's fairly fun, and even rather pretty.
There's not much to Dick Pope's cinematography, but those subtle little stresses on lighting grace the film with a handsome brightness that is almost as perky as Rachel Portman's uniquely Euro-Jazz and light classical-style score, which is lovely, and adds to the charm of the film. Whether it be because it's attempting to be ironic as a deconstruction of the traditional, middle-class family unit, or whatever, this film relies on a lighthearted, humbling style that is not only very well-sold, but enjoyable in livening up the film and complimenting its themes. As for the script which ought to be doing the same, Mike Leigh gets either carried away or too subdued in the structure of storytelling, but he still turns in a very colorful script with interesting characters and sharp dialogue that, when actually comprehensible, is plenty amusing. Of course, the color of the script cannot thrive without Leigh delivering as a colorful directorial storyteller, and sure enough, even though Leigh's direction relies on a certain thoughtfulness which often retards momentum, the pacing of the film never falls to a dull crawl, as Leigh keeps the scene structuring tight and busy enough to consistently entertain, until slowing down in time for the occasional dramatic beat. The film is fairly effective for what it is, and although what it is is rather inconsequential and, well, a tad abrasive, when it's fairly fun, it's thought-provoking, and it's never less than charming, even with the aggravating characters. If there is charm to the roles, they thrive on the leads' performances, for even Jane Horrocks, with her transformative convincingness and dramatic effectiveness, endears you a bit to her almost seemingly irredeemable Nicola character, while the colorful Jim Broadbent, perky Alison Steadman, Claire Skinner, and almost show-stealing Timothy Spall add to the fun factor of a film that, without them, would be consistently obnoxious. Sure, the film gets on your nerves plenty of times, and it doesn't offer you too much beyond that, but what this is, it's pretty enjoyable, with compelling highlights.
In closing, the characters are underdeveloped, hard to fully buy into, and obnoxious, challenging your patience about as much as aimlessness and dry spells to the telling of a thin story, thus, the final product is inconsequential, yet through tasteful cinematography and score work, clever scripting, colorful direction, and worthy performances, Mike Leigh's "Life is Sweet" stands as an entertaining and occasionally touching dramedy.
2.5/5 - Fair