Mel Brooks certainly has had his fair share of ups and downs. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Brooks was one of the best comedic filmmakers around. With his resume peppered by such classics as The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein, Brooks was considered one of the funniest guys in Hollywood. Ah, but then the 1980s and 1990s rolled around and we got stinkers like Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Ick. Suddenly, it seemed that Mel Brooks was all dried up. Then came the Broadway version of Brooks' "The Producers" (his original directorial debut) and now he's as hot as a baked potato again. During his "ick" period, Mel co-wrote and directed the down-on-your-luck knee-slapper Life Stinks, now available from MGM Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Goddard Bolt (Brooks) is one of the wealthiest men in the world, worth well over a billion dollars. Goddard lives in the lap of luxury. He drinks from expensive glasses. He lives in a palace designed for a king. But all of this is going to change when he makes a fateful bet with Vance Crasswell (Jeffrey Tambor, The Larry Sanders Show), a greedy industrialist with designs on a dilapidated ghetto in Los Angeles, California. Goddard also wants the property for his own architectural plans, which consist of a sprawling Mecca that will force all of the homeless people out of their living quarters. Goddard and Vance decide to wager for the area: if Goddard can survive for 30 days in the slum without any credit cards, physical amenities, or support from his friends, he wins the property. But step outside the ghetto limits, and Crasswell will claim the property for himself. With the help of a somewhat nutty bag lady named Molly (Leslie Ann Warren, Clue) and a group of rag tag derelicts, Goddard will find out what it's like to live the life of poverty…and that sometimes Life Stinks!
While watching Life Stinks I was pondering what I might say to Mel Brooks if I had the chance to meet him in person or send him a letter. Here are my thoughts:
Dear Mr. Brooks:
Please accept this letter in good faith…
Mel, Mel, Mel…what happened? When did you lose your precious sense of what is funny? Since I was a kid I've loved your movies. Young Frankenstein: hysterical. History of the World: Part I: great. Spaceballs: decent. So what happened to you in the 1990s? Granted, you only made three movies (Life Stinks, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and the dreadful Dracula: Dead and Loving It). But boy, were they ever bad. Granted, not as bad as some of the crap playing in theaters today (did you see Freddy Got Fingered? Dear Lord…), but still they were pretty rancid. Mel, you used to have such a keen sense of the absurd. What the heck happened, buddy?
And so it's with great sadness that I must pan your 1991 comedy Life Stinks. It's not that you made a terrible movie—just a very outdated and boring one. The gags all seem tiered and strained, as if you and your co-writers were working on auto-pilot. There's one joke in particular that lingers in my mind. Your character is fighting with a homeless man about who's presumably richer. Then you slap each other. Over and over and over and over again. Slap, slap, slap. I'd like to think that you of all people would know the comedy rule of threes: anything over that number is generally not funny. And yet you break it over and over again in Life Stinks.
As stated, I think you're a funny guy. If nothing else, I was happy to see you walking around onscreen, an almost bigger-than-life persona—even if you appear to be under five feet tall. I liked how you meandered around the sets with an air of pomposity and then slowly turned into an actual human being. From that angle the movie sort of works. Your supporting cast is good, if not great. Leslie Ann Warren is fine as your love interest, but don't you think she still looks a little too attractive to be living homeless on the streets of Los Angeles? Jeffery Tambor makes a good villain with his sneering smirk and slickly laidback manner. You've done a fine job of making sure you have some fine actors orbiting around your comedic sun.
Though I wasn't crazy about your movie, I did find a few things to smile about. I really liked that scene where you and Molly danced around the warehouse strewn with rags and old clothes. You've always had a way with song and dance. I also liked the fact that you gave a role to Mr. Tambor, who should be working in more films. And I give you strong kudos for not demeaning the very real problem of homelessness across our country. While you wringed a few laughs from the idea of living on the streets, you never created humor using a mean or nasty spirit. But that still doesn't make up for the fact that the film is flaccid and often flat.
In closing Mel, I just want to reiterate that I like you and many of your movies. You haven't directed a film in quite sometime. Personally, I'd be interested to see your take on comedy in 2003. Why not take a break from all that Broadway "riggamarole" and see what you can put down on celluloid?
Your pal in comedy,
Life Stinks is presented in two options: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full frame. Obviously I recommend the widescreen transfer over the hacked full frame image. The widescreen picture appears to be in good shape, though it does show some faded colors and a slight washed look at times. Otherwise the dirt and grain are kept to a minimum with colors and black levels solid and bright. The pan and scan transfer is…well, cropped and useless.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround in English and French. This sound mix is pretty much what I was expecting—distortion free effects, music, and dialogue, and little else. There aren't any true directional effects or surround sounds to be found on this mix. Since this is a dialogue driven comedy, it wasn't overly necessary for MGM to give the film a 5.1 overhaul (though, as usual, it would have been welcome). For the film it's supporting, this track is apt. Also included on this disc are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Due to the Broadway success of "The Producers," MGM has granted Life Stinks a few fine extra features. The best of these is the commentary track by Mel Brooks and co-writers Rudy De Luca and Steve Haberman. This is one of those funny, genial commentaries that features just as many jokes as it does production information. From what it sounds like, Brooks is just as much a ham in real life as he is on the silver screen. The other major extra feature on this disc is a newly produced featurette "Does Life Really Stink?" that includes new interviews with Brooks, De Luca, and Haberman discussing the film and its origins. The most interesting tidbit is that it sounds like a lot of popular Hollywood actors auditioned for this movie.
Also included on this disc is an original theatrical trailer for the film, as well as trailers for other MGM movies.
A few chuckles, and that's about it. Life Stinks doesn't cut the butter (or grease, or mildew…) as a hearty, full bodied comedy. Let's hope that if Mel Brooks directs again, he's got better tricks up his sleeve than movies like this one. MGM has produced a solid disc with more worthy supplements than this film deserves.
Life Stinks comes close to stinking itself. Mel Brooks is slapped with a minor fine and sentenced to two months touring the stand-up comedy circuit.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Director/Co-Writer Mel Brooks, and Co-Writers Rudy De Luca and Steve Haberman
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