While I certainly don’t feel bad for filmmakers with critical and commercial success, I can imagine that often they feel trapped by the expectations that come with that success, making it harder to take chances and evolve as filmmakers. A good case can be made of this is happening to Mel Brooks, who in the 1980s was more ambitious as a producer, working without credit on films such as The Elephant Man and My Favourite Year. As a director during this period, Brooks made films such as History of the World: Part I and Spaceballs which, while fun films, were were less focused and sharp in their satire compared to his earlier work. Brooks seemed more focused on living up to his reputation as a filmmaker specializing in parodies during this time, drifting ever more in the direction of the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams’ brand of kitchen sink comedy, a type which only the Zuckers and Abrahams ever were able to master to perfection.
Life Stinks, a 1991 film by Brooks, is an attempt to reconcile these competing sides of the filmmaking legend, seeking to capture genuine emotion and exploring the relationship between the wealthy and the impoverished in a manner evocative of (though not nearly as effective as) Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931). Life Stinks stars Brooks, playing Goddard Bolt, a wealthy man who, as part of an effort to buy and redevelop a poor section of Los Angeles, agrees to a wager proposed by his rival, Vance Crasswell (Jeffery Tambor), in which Bolt will live in poverty for an entire month. During the course of the month, Bolt not only has to learn how to survive, but also deal with the meddling interference from Crasswell, all while slowly falling in love with a homeless woman named Molly (Leslie Ann Warren).
Unlike Brooks’ earlier efforts, Life Stinks does not use cinema itself as its subject matter, instead evoking elements of cinema’s past to help tell his most grounded tale. Brooks seeks to examine the issues of poverty in America, particularly in urban centers, and as such moves away from the subversive, meta jokes and slapstick that marked his classic efforts, though only to a degree: there is still plenty of broad comedy moments throughout the film. The film however is an attempt to have the viewers invest emotionally into the characters in a way Brooks never really has before, or since, while still allowing for those moments of broad comedy. Brooks is clearly moving out of his comfort zone, and it gives the film a level of energy that his latter efforts often lack: you can just feel Brooks putting his all into this one, and it makes it all the more frustrating as a viewer when the film just misses the mark.
The first real problem with Life Stinks is that Brooks’ satire is not focused. As crazed and episodic as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein appear, those films are tightly focused efforts which know their subject matter backwards and forwards, skilfully blending social satire and cinematic lampooning. Here, Brooks has brilliant moments of satire, targeting the systemic failures in American society, but the Life Stinks never quite goes for the throat like his other efforts and explore the material in depth. Instead, Brooks relies on wealthy stereotypes and cartoonish behaviour rather than substantive criticism.
The first issue is likely the result of the second issue, which is Brooks’ unwillingness to commit to this film being something different from the rest of his body of work. While Brooks plays closer to reality, he also seems to want to hedge his bets by including moments of Brooks’ brand comedy which simply do not fit in the film, from random visual gags to forced slapstick. The entire final third of the film completely abandons any notion of grounding for a completely absurd, fairy tale ending that was probably slapped onto the film because the more natural, bittersweet ending point for the film (which I will get to in a moment) was too much of a “downer” for audiences. Thus, the film concludes with a fight between two construction vehicles, the poor of the L.A. area mingling with the wealthy, and a small man pretending that his legs are getting crushed. The ending completely undoes any investment made by the audience into the story, giving into cheap tricks, artifice, and low brow gags that had thankfully been kept in check till this point.
This total lack of faith from Brooks in making a different type of film is unfortunate, because when Life Stinks works, it works wonderfully. The highlight of the film is the relationship between Bolt and Molly, which manages to be sweet and touching without giving into the typical romantic clichés. One of the best moments of the film is a scene in which Bolt and Molly engage in a silly, fantastic, and old fashioned dance number which manages to be charming and one of the best scenes in any of Brooks’ films. Greater than this though, is a scene which should have ended then film, as Molly visits a comatose Bolt, who has suffered a massive personal setback and has ended up in the hospital (whose staff is responsible of Bolt’s state). The scene is one with Molly pouring her heart out, performed beautifully by Warren, and ends on a simply look between herself and Bolt. It is a wonderful scene, and in many ways, feels like the film’s end. It wouldn’t wrap up all of the threads of the narrative, but I don’t believe that the film really needs to offer a conclusion to everything. The issues Brooks addresses and the more grounded approach to them do not befit a fantasy ending.
Perhaps Life Stinks wouldn’t have been any more successful if Brooks had gone for broke with the film. However, we do know that the finished film was not a success critically or commercially, and if Brooks’ last two films are anything to go by, he took the wrong lesson away from the failure of Life Stinks, returning with a vengeance to mocking cinema in a manner that was derivative of his early successes. I’m personally sad that the ambition Brooks shows with this film was never developed further. For all its flaws, Life Stinks might have been the first step in the development of a second stage of his career as a filmmaker. Instead, it is cursed to be known as the first step in ending Brooks’ career.