Mel Brooks started as a comedy writer before moving on to a filmmaker in the 1960s and had his best success in the 1970s focusing mostly on parodies of genre movies. He made some of the best comedies of all time which he may be forever known as the King of Comedy and it’s good to be the king.
However, in the 1980s, he took a different approach and focused more on producing and producing more serious dramas. It’s not a hyperbole to say David Lynch more or less owes his film career to Brooks who practically gave him final cut on The Elephant Man and even told Paramount Pictures nothing was being changed.
Even though Mrs. Mel Brooks Anne Bancroft appeared in the movie, Brooks kept his name off the movie as well as Francis in 1982. But by the time he approached a Canadian director David Cronenberg to helm the remake of The Fly in 1986, he made it known he was the producer. And rumors have it that early preview audiences thought the movie was a satire and when they discovered it was a body horror flick, they went running from the theaters gagging and throwing up.
Spaceballs introduced Brooks to a new generation but his next movie as director is Life Stinks. It’s not a parody even though it seems loosely based or inspired by Sullivan’s Travels.
Brooks in his last leading role plays billionaire Goddard Bolt, who purchases half of the slums of Los Angeles with the intention of razing it and developing his own community Bolt Center. But he discovers his business rival, Vance Crasswell (Jeffrey Tambor) has bought the other half from under him and offers to buy him out.
As a stand-off, Bolt is suckered into a bet after Crasswell says he grew up in the slums and has become a self-made rich man. Bolt arrogantly says he can live in the slums for 30 days without any money or credit cards and without revealing who he really is.
With an ankle monitor, he is left alone, but soon finds it’s difficult with comic results. Trying to sleep on a stoop behind a building, he is pushed into a dumpster when the door opens. He tries to sleep in a drain pipe, but a bunch of rats coming rushing toward him.
He meets another bum, Sailor (Howard Morris), who urinates on him as he sleeps. Later, he is saved from two drug-dealing thugs by Molly (Lesley Ann Warren) who lives in a back alley and may be a little deranged. Molly knows Sailor and Bolt or as Sailor calls him “Pepto” finds another friend in Fumes (Teddy Wilson) as they deal with life on the streets.
The events are comical but also sad when they are unable to get into a shelter on a rainy night as the streets flood. They are later forced to find a place in a lot with abandoned junk. It’s here where the movie takes a more dramatic turn as Sailor leaves to go to a clinic but dies on the street. Bolt finds the body but is shocked to see how property owners of nearby businesses treat him and Sailor who they say are “just bums.” Even the paramedics who arrive to load up Sailor feel that since he was homeless, no autopsy needs to be performed and they’re just going to take him to the morgue.
This is a change for Brooks as most of his movies didn’t rely on such serious moments, but it’s necessary for Bolt to see that the people he never paid attention to were more willing to help him than business owners that exploit them. A cheap motel offering rooms to rent is just an open room with cheap beds. A Mexican restaurant stand owner yells at Bolt for loitering. When the thugs burn down Molly’s personal items, the nearby residents don’t call the fire department because “it’s all a bunch of junk.”
Released on this day, July 26, 1991, America was going through a recession, not near as bad as the one we’re in now or the one that hit in 2008, but it was clearly a result of the failed policies of the Reagan/Bush Administration. Bolt seems to be a corporate raider like other people of the time, just wanting more wealth and surrounding himself by “Yes Men” such as his top lawyer, Pritchard (Stuart Pankin).
Life Stinks may not be on par with his movies from the 1970s or 1980s, but it’s not his worst movie as it’s often considered. That designation goes to Dracula: Dead And Loving It, which seems like someone trying to make a Mel Brooks movie. And I liked Robin Hood: Men In Tights despite the bad reviews.
Brooks wanted to do something more experimental with this movie and it was shown out of competition at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. I think maybe audiences thought Brooks would be presenting a slapstick comedy as it was advertised. But it was instead a movie showing how in America, it’s very easy to become homeless through no fault of your own. Molly reveals that at one time, she had a career and was married, before her husband left her and she lost her house and possessions.
Brooks reportedly wanted Whoopi Goldberg to play Molly but didn’t think audiences would accept the later romance that develops between Bolt and Molly. I like Whoopi, but she would’ve been wrong here. Yes, Whoopi can do good drama and good comedy and a little of both. But so can Warren and she makes it believable that at one time, Molly was a regular woman you’d pass by in the supermarket or at a social event.
While some of the criticism was that Brooks didn’t use familiar actors, I digress. Morris and Michael Ensign, who plays one of Bolt’s lawyers, have been in previous Brooks movies as well as co-writer Rudy De Luca, who plays a deranged bum who thinks he’s J. Paul Getty, and gets into a slapping fight with Bolt.
Yes, there is a lot of outrageous humor. One scene in particular is similar to The Jerk, directed by Brooks’ long-time friend and collaborator Carl Reiner, where Bolt runs through his mansion after being double-crossed trying to nab all his expensive possessions.
Then there’s a scene that was shown in marketing where Bolt tries to micmic a street kid’s song and dance routine to make money. You can see Brooks go through several emotions in just about half a minute. At first he’s nervous, but he slowly gets excited as he gets into it. Then, he gets aggravated that no one is donating money before giving up.
When him and Crasswell do battle with bulldozers and backhoes, it’s silly. And probably one of the movie’s scenes that only Brooks could get away with is when they scatter Sailor’s ashes only to have a gust of wind blow back in their faces.
According to Morris, this happened to him when he scattered his father’s ashes. If you’ve seen The Big Lebowski, a similar scene is shown where wind blows ashes into people’s faces. I don’t know if the Coen Brothers got that from this movie, but I like to think they did. It’s been reported Monty Python got the idea of ending The Holy Grail by having the police show up right before the knights siege the castle by Brooks’ literally fourth wall break in Blazing Saddles.
While not popular with critics and moviegoers on its release, the movie has found its audience over the years who have re-evaluated it. It’s a sad state that an America Brooks was showing us 30 years ago not only hasn’t changed for the better, but seems to have gotten worse.