By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
Phil, like many professional drivers, is an amateur philosopher of sorts, occasionally mumbling about "the fickle finger of fate" and summing up his general take on life as, "Tide comes in, tide goes out, you're born, you die, that's it." It's hardly a stretch to attribute a similar mind-set to director Leigh, whose films tend toward heavily improvised portraits of the downtrodden. Rarely does Leigh offer anything close to a transcendent ending, because he gives his characters redemption in the small joys of life. (It's no accident that the rare boisterousness of the Gilbert and Sullivan film Topsy-Turvy garnered Leigh more mainstream notice than usual.)
Among the walking wounded are Phil's family, beginning with Penny (Lesley Manville), who functions as his wife even though we learn they never bothered to get married. Penny works at a grocery store, somehow managing to be the major breadwinner on a Safeway salary since Phil never gets up in time to corner the morning rush-hour crowd. Phil's kids have his genetics, weighing probably twice as much as slim Penny, though daughter Rachel (Alison Garland) at least has mum's motivation, and holds down a cleaning job at the old folks' home. Son Rory (James Corden), on the other hand, can either be found lying on the couch watching television or passively kicking around a football, pausing occasionally to beat the living bejeezus out of any poor fool who tries to join in.
Phil's work colleague Ron (Paul Jesson) has serious anger-management issues, and a wife (Marion Bailey) who's so chronically blind-drunk she might as well have Alzheimer's. To no one's surprise, their daughter Samantha (Sally Hawkins) is the neighborhood slut, currently trying to score the boyfriend of surly Donna (Helen Coker), daughter of the perkiest of Phil's neighbor's, Maureen (Ruth Sheen, often stealing the show).
It could almost be a setup for a sitcom--in fact, if you stop to sketch out the film's dramatic arc, it plays out like one, starting out of the gate with funny character bits, building to a crisis that involves a disease of the week. Plus, everybody pours their hearts out, venting at long last and saying sorries, or not; even though plot spoilers are almost beside the point in a Mike Leigh film, we won't give away whether or not every issue gets resolved.
Normally, any kind of sitcom comparison would be a cutting put-down, but in Leigh's case it's actually a good thing. Given that he tends to be heavy on the violins (metaphorical and literal), it's a pleasure to note the occasional in-your-face irony--Phil's minicab company is named "Gladiator Cabs," and Samantha sports a skimpy "Harvard" top--and amusing character quirks, such as Rory calling the family dinner "shit," then bursting into a ridiculous, blustery rage because his mother finds that assessment offensive; or Donna's dumbass boyfriend's notion of foreplay, which is to vigorously poke at the bruise he gave her on a previous occasion. Only a stereotypical French tourist (Kathryn Hunter) is played a little too broadly, but that's OK; experimenting with bigger laughs can only be a good thing in Mike Leigh's world.
Though it's become almost redundant to say so, major kudos go to Leigh for actually casting people who look working-class; you'd be hard-pressed to get an American studio to go along with that, even though Leigh alumni often become famous. It would be difficult to imagine the likes of Brenda Blethyn or David Thewlis getting work in Hollywood if it weren't for Leigh, yet the two are nowadays considered viable leads (for indie movies, anyway). Spall, who could almost be a live-action rendition of Droopy Dawg, is on his way, with roles in the likes of Vanilla Sky, but keep an eye also on Sam Kelly, as Rachel's aging, lecherous co-worker--he turns what could have been a merely repellent caricature into a tragic figure, albeit one you wouldn't want to go near with a 10-foot mop handle, unless, perhaps, you were beating him with it.
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