Mel Brooks has devoted the vast majority of his career to making movies that satirize (or at least spoof) other movies. He began this trend with the brilliant 1974 western parody Blazing Saddles, and spent the rest of his directorial career riffing every other genre he felt inspired to play with: science fiction movies, vampire movies, silent movies, Hitchcock movies, etc. The one post-Saddles exception is Life Stinks, a curiously earnest comedy/drama that feels like Brooks' attempt at making a modern version of Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels. Brooks has never been shy about borrowing material from himself (how many times did he recycle that “walk this way” joke?) or other filmmakers (Robin Hood: Men in Tights wouldn't have its best gags without the inspiration provided by Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), but as he got older, his borrowing skills diminished. This is a good-hearted movie, but Sturges did it better. So did John Landis' Trading Places, for that matter.
Brooks (who co-wrote, produced and directed) stars as Goddard Bolt, a wealthy CEO making plans to tear down a slum in L.A. Sure, it'll make life harder for the homeless people who live there, but human suffering has never stopped Bolt from trying to make a few bucks. The only thing stopping him from carrying out his plan is the fact that his competitor Vance Craswell (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development) also has plans for the property. After failing to negotiate a traditional deal, Vance proposes an unconventional solution: if Bolt can pretend to be a homeless person and survive in the slum for thirty days, the property will be his.
This is the sort of arrangement that only happens in the movies, but this is a movie, so off we go. Naturally, there are ground rules that cannot be broken under any circumstances. A tracking device is placed on Bolt's leg, and we're told that if he leaves the boundaries of the slum for more than thirty seconds, the tracker will send an alert and the deal will be cancelled. Why thirty seconds? Would it surprise you if I told you there was a scene involving someone pushing Bolt out of bounds and Bolt desperately trying to make his way back across? Bolt is also told that he can't reveal his true identity to anyone. He breaks this rule almost immediately, but the thing about being homeless is that no one believes you when you claim to be anything else.
Shortly after starting this period of homelessness (and discovering that he's not very good at being poor), Bolt meets Molly (Lesley Ann Warren, Clue), a sharp-tongued but good-hearted woman who volunteers to help Bolt learn the ropes of surviving on the streets. Molly is the sort of homeless gal that used to be popular in the films of the '30s and '40s – a plucky, attractive woman whose dowdy clothes and dirty face make her look like a not-so-impoverished woman playing dress-up. The extras are required to look authentically homeless, but the lead actress needs to look like a movie star.
If you think you have a good idea of where Life Stinks is going, you almost certainly do. This is the story of Bolt finding his humanity, falling in love, learning a Very Important Lesson and ultimately... well, I'll let the film itself deliver that non-surprise. This might have been fine if Brooks had some good jokes to offer up – plenty of movies have succeeded in spite of formulaic templates – but the genuinely funny gags are spread pretty thin. It's like a Muppet movie with no Muppets in it. There's a nifty opening scene featuring the clomping shoes of busy businessmen, and a fun bulldozer battle that Brooks underscores with Godzilla movie sound effects (there's one particularly absurd shot in the middle of this scene that made me laugh out loud). Jeffrey Tambor has some fun line readings, too. Alas, the film is generally content to kill time with tired, easy sitcom scenarios.
The Sullivan's Travels influence rears its head most prominently during the film's sudden bursts of drama. This is fundamentally a comedy, but it's clear that Brooks also wants to make a serious point about the way America's disenfranchised people are treated. Unfortunately, the writing in these scenes isn't strong enough to make an impact, and the film's dramatic scenes never manage to mesh comfortably with its warmer, goofier moments. The film's stray jabs at the heartlessness of the modern medical industry and the futility of trickle-down economics are appreciated, but not particularly well-articulated. It's easy to see what the movie was going for... it just never quite gets there. Life Stinks doesn't stink, but like most late-period Brooks films, the whole thing has an air of missed potential.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Year: 1991