Like with The 12 Chairs, I had no idea Life Stinks existed before I watched it for this retrospective. And, once again, my lack of expectation paid off. Unlike The 12 Chairs, this is no lost masterpiece; in fact, in some ways it isn’t even very good. But it does things no other Brooks film has even attempted, and is definitely worth a look for fans who may have never heard of it like me.
The jokes in Life Stinks are, on the whole, pretty mediocre, but this is the one time in Brooks’ filmography where that is not a deal breaker, because I don’t really see this as a comedy. It’s more of a dramedy, a film that flirts with comedic elements but, on the whole, has something more serious and important than laughter on its mind.
Brooks casts himself as Goddard Bolt, a filthy rich business mogul and unlikable cad who dreams of turning a well-known L.A. slum into a shopping complex. But Bolt’s business rival Vance Craswell (Jeffrey Tambor), who matches Bolt in both wealth and complete disregard for human life, wants to build his own complex on the same land. So the two make a gentleman’s bet: if Bolt can survive 30 days on the streets without his money or his power, Craswell will concede the land. But, if Bolt gives up, the land is Craswell’s.
Will Bolt survive 30 days on the streets when he hasn’t worked a day in his life? Will he learn valuable lessons about the dignity of his fellow man? If you’re breathing air, you already know the answer. Everything here has been done before; from the rich man’s bet (hello Trading Places) to the unlikable guy who finds the heart he never knew he had (too many 80’s movies to count).
Bolt wanders the streets as he attempts to learn and master the art of being homeless, everything from perusing soup kitchens to performing for money to finding a place to sleep. Along the way he befriends a colorful cast of characters, including Sailor (Howard Morris), Fumes (Teddy Wilson) and the fiery Molly (Lesley Ann Warren). The first half of the film is filled with a lot of jokes that fall rather flat, but when tragedy strikes, it’s pretty emotional. Brooks has never handled true drama very well, but here it works better than the comedy. The film balances the light moments with the heavy reality of homelessness brilliantly.
Despite the movie’s familiar concepts, it still feels refreshing because for once Brooks made a straightforward movie, with a plot and complete character arcs, rather than a spoof. In concept and theme, it feels very much influenced by the films of John Landis and Harold Ramis. But rather than riffing on those directors’ styles, it’s more of a loving homage. It’s also the rare Brooks films with a socially conscious message; the filmmaker has something valuable (though pretty obvious) to say about the human condition.
But the real reason to check Life Stinks out is the acting. Everyone here is a home run. Tambor, currently making waves with his head-turning role in the Amazon show Transparent, is really funny as the goofy-yet-vindictive Craswell. His comedic timing is impeccable. Brooks gives what is perhaps his best-ever performance, balancing the funny and the tragic elements of his character with ease. There’s a sequence near the end set in a hospital wing that had me rolling, but then I felt guilty, because Bolt is actually in a lot of pain and at his lowest moment, and other characters are taking advantage of that for a laugh. I’ve never seen Brooks straddle the line of the tragicomic so well, as a director or as an actor.
The real star, however, is Warren as Molly. She starts out goofy and more than a little crazy, but once we learn her backstory we begin to understand why she is so bitter at the world, and how she tries to hide her pain by looking tough and brushing aside her real emotions with off-color jokes. It’s an incredibly affecting performance, and I can’t say enough about how much nuance and energy she brings to the entire film.
While the movie features some interesting left turns for Brooks as a director, there’s still some reliably entertaining Brooks moments, including a sweet musical number and some good ol’ slapstick. But the directorial trait that shines through the most here is heart. This is a passionate, tough little film that you can tell everyone involved poured their hearts and souls into. The result is so infectious, you can’t help but smile.
Life Stinks is a charming and delightfully old-fashioned slice-of-life story. Some might find its clichés and predictable story beats distracting, but the movie has more than enough heart and stellar performances to make up for it. It’s a true gem for Brooks fans looking for something a little different.