MIKE LEIGH is England's leading film satirist, but that doesn't mean his movies are always funny. His new picture, "Life Is Sweet," juxtaposes scenes of high comedy with moments that are likely to make audiences squirm.This won't surprise moviegoers who remember the poignant undercurrent of Mr. Leigh's previous film, "High Hopes," or the relentlessly sardonic edge of earlier Leigh works like "Bleak Moments" and "Meantime," which dissected the shortcomings of their characters with unsparing precision. Leigh's work has grown more overtly funny in recent years, as "Life Is Sweet" breezily proves. But his goal is never to provoke laughs for their own sake. His humor is a tool for suggesting what's wrong with institutions - from the family to the nation - that are usually taken for granted in mainstream movies. He's a social critic as well as a storyteller. "Life Is Sweet" focuses on a working-class family. Dad dreams of starting his own restaurant, no matter how modest, so he can be his own boss. Mom supports him while dreaming self-absorbed dreams. Natalie and Nicola, their twin daughters, cope with life in very different ways - one by plodding through her tasks with dogged determination, the other by rebelling in a bluntly self-destructive manner. Ultimately it is Nicola who becomes the film's most vibrant character, as well as its most pointed symbol for Britain in the Margaret Thatcher era, which Leigh depicts as plagued by consumerism and egotism. Tortured by a relationship with food that is compulsive and masochistic - yet hardly rare in today's world - she struggles for fulfillment in a household that loves her, but lacks the courage to confront or recognize the depth of her problems. "Life Is Sweet" isn't sour all the way through. It contains moments of high spirits, and it shows a special sympathy toward its female characters - an attitude Leigh is widely recognized for - that's refreshing in the male-oriented movie world. The performances are also excellent. Jane Horrocks is good in a harrowing way as Nicola, once she allows the character to develop some nuance in the second half of the story, and Alison Steadman and Jim Broadbent are solid as the grown-ups of the house. The performers affect thick accents that sometimes make their dialogue hard to make out; but since the characters speak almost entirely in cliches, it's easy to follow their conversations without catching all their words. "Life Is Sweet" celebrates the charm of those cliches, and also criticizes the individual, social, and political limits that keep potentially vigorous people from leaping over the hurdles that ordinary life puts into their paths. It's an uneven, sometimes disturbing, but memorable film.
The film is unrated.