NOTE: Part of a June movie-watching event celebrating Mel Brooks’ 96th birthday.
Sometime between making a movie centered around ribbing Star Wars and conceptualizing a Robin Hood parody, Mel Brooks decided to try something different. Had he not taken the wrong exit ramp in downtown Los Angeles on account of car trouble, he probably wouldn’t have made Life Stinks, a flawed but mostly endearing dramedy about a billionaire who makes a bet with another billionaire that he could live like a bum for a month.
But first, back to the wrong exit. Brooks experienced car trouble one day and wound up in a seedy part of LA he referred to as “Calcutta.” It was then the wealthy Hollywood filmmaker experienced, if only for a few fleeting minutes, life on the other side of the tracks. He saw a plethora of good, honest people who had been disenfranchised by Reaganomics — which fed the corporate elite and closed many halfway houses, rendering people homeless. Rent hikes and upscale neighborhoods left them with no place to go but the streets.
Brooks knows no other way but the humorous one, so the fact that Life Stinks — which is loosely based on individuals Brooks encountered that day his car broke down — is a comedy isn’t surprising. It’s still rather broad, and sometimes sloppy. You could almost visualize Brooks sweating bullets when writing the screenplay (along with three others), wanting to break the fourth wall or parody a movie like Wall Street, which was only four years old at the time. He manages to resist, although there are at least two scenes in this movie (one of them a slap-fight) that feel straight out of Silent Movie.
Brooks plays Goddard Bolt, a callous financial mogul who wants to buy a sizable slum neighborhood in Los Angeles with the intent of redevelopment. Enter Vance Crasswell (a good Jeffrey Tambor), another loaded slimeball, who ignites a bidding war with Bolt over the property. Their negotiations turn into a wager: Bolt bets he can live in the neighborhood for 30 days, penniless and with an ankle-bracelet tracking his whereabouts to assure he doesn’t flee. Should he succeed, he can buy the land.
Of course it takes getting used to, but Bolt starts to emulate other skid-row dwellers in order to get by. He makes friends with Sailor (Howard Morris), Fumes (Theodore Wilson), and eventually, Molly (Lesley Ann Warren). Molly is an embittered divorcee, who lives in an alley that she’s made a loft of sorts, with a flat box for a bed and a couple crates for a den. Despite her understandable rejection of the very idea of happiness, the kindness in her personality can’t completely be muted.
The film’s first 45 minutes are its clumsiest. The humor is broad to the point where punchlines are clear as day. It almost feels like a Saturday Night Live skit with its obvious maneuvers, as if the writers were unsure of their own path forward. Once Lesley Ann Warren — who, despite the bag lady attire, is still as radiant as she ever was — is introduced, the film finds an emotional center, and Bolt feels less like a caricature and a bit more human.
Brooks clearly wants to get political at times, but he also knows his lane. The nuance of the commentary makes the overall film less preachy and more palatable, in its defense. One such moment comes when, during his first night on the streets, a tired, hungry Bolt begs a church to let him sleep inside. Instead, he’s cruelly accosted by an unseen voice, who still manages to end their remarks with a sweet-voiced “my son.” Why would a church bother to take in the tired, sick, and the poor? That was Jesus’ job. Brooks would rather us draw that conclusion ourselves than skywrite it for us.
Life Stinks gets raucous in its final act, but it does so in the charming, Brooksian manner where there’s a method to the madness. Seeing a gaggle of homeless people storm a construction site populated by the wealthy is one of those tropes that seldom gets old. The ensuing situational comedy that comes with the have-nots impeding on the personal spaces of the haves is quite funny as well.
I guess what I’m saying is patience is your friend with this movie.
It might be apropos of nothing, but while watching Life Stinks, I thought about what my father would always mutter under his breath whenever we’d pass a panhandler on the streets of Chicago. “Get a job,” he’d mumble. It’s kind of tough to get a job when you can’t fill out the second question on a job application — street address.
NOTE: As of this writing, Life Stinks is available to watch on YouTube, free of charge.
MORE REVIEWS OF MEL BROOKS’ FILMS:
My review of Blazing Saddles
My review of High Anxiety
My review of The Producers (1967)
My review of The Producers (2005)
My review of Silent Movie
My review of Spaceballs
My review of Young Frankenstein
Starring: Mel Brooks, Lesley Ann Warren, Jeffrey Tambor, Stuart Pankin, Howard Morris, and Theodore Wilson. Directed by: Mel Brooks.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!