There’s value in the forgotten Mel Brooks film ‘Life Stinks’ — Ultimate Movie Year
THERE’S STILL A LITTLE GOLD IN THE DEEP CUTS OF SUCH A PROLIFIC CAREER.
Released July 26, 1991
Directed by Mel Brooks
Where to Watch
If one were to rank the pictures of Mel Brooks, it’s likely that his 1991 film, “Life Stinks,” would rank toward the bottom in almost any poll. I’m not here to dispute that, but we’re also talking about one of the premier comedic minds, movies or otherwise, of the 20th century: The odds are excellent that you’ll find something here worth enjoying.
Brooks (who also wrote and directed the picture) stars as Goddard Bolt, a wealthy company owner about to purchase a poverty-stricken community in Los Angeles for real estate development. Bolt’s rival, Vance Crasswell (Jeffrey Tambor), is scheming to acquire the land for himself and tricks Bolt into a bet: Bolt must survive 30 days as a homeless man in that community without using any of his influence, money, or resources, or Crasswell will assume control of the site.
“Life Stinks” qualifies as lesser Brooks for a reason: There’s a long stretch of the movie that just isn’t very funny because it’s complex subject matter for a comedy. One of the critical rules of comedy is to always punch up by targeting the jokes toward the people who have power and status. Bolt’s fall from status can mine many jokes, but once he’s wholly embedded within the homeless community and we’re invested in that story, the well of laughs of his situation is dry and shallow. The characters around him are actually down-on-their-luck, so the spirited venom Brooks reserves for the stupid, vain, and morally-bankrupt upper class here doesn’t translate the other way. “Life Stinks” may be socially conscious, but it’s not an environment that produces LOLs. That doesn’t mean it can’t amuse either.
One of the issues is the weight of expectation working against Brooks. The comedian/writer/director became a household name in entertainment with a series of acclaimed hit movies that indulged in farce and parody, such as the original 1968 film “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein,” and “Blazing Saddles.” His previous effort to “Life Stinks,” “Spaceballs,” was a mild success at the box office and became a fan favorite later as a parody of “Star Wars.” But “Life Stinks” has more in common with the societal satire of Preston Sturges, the screenwriter and director of such 40’s movies as “The Lady Eve,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” and “The Miracle of Morgan Creek.” Sturges’ humor was grounded in awkward and untenable social situations. Once we let go of the expectations built in Brooks’ filmography and look at “Life Stinks” through this other lens, the experience improves, and the movie’s ideas begin to open up.
Through this perspective, “Life Stinks” finds its best moments, as the director’s appreciation of classic Hollywood manifests itself in the film. In addition to the homages to Sturges’ plot and tone, Brooks draws upon a vaudeville-like comedy bit in Bolt’s argument with another homeless man above. In another arc, Bolt develops a relationship with Molly (Leslie Ann Warren), who’s also down on her luck. In a moment of vulnerability and desire, Bolt and Molly dream of a better life, take hold of each other, and waltz around the refuse facility they’re using for comfort.
One can’t think it’s a coincidence that vaudeville and dance routines were included in a movie about a rich man who loses everything and is left out on the streets. Brooks is a child of the Depression, where movies became a form of cheap entertainment for audiences looking for laughter and glamor. The famous stars were Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers, so it stands to reason they would have made an impression on the young Brooks. You can point to their influences from “The Tramp” to soft shoe routines throughout “Life Stinks.”
The highlight of the movie, and one closest to Brooks’ other work while keeping that Sturges feel, is when Bolt is taken to the hospital and suffers at the hands of the modern medical operation. Thanks to the laser focus of its societal commentary (and the sheer inertia of the American status quo), this scene has aged like a fine wine three decades later.
All and all, “Life Stinks” may not have the volume of laughs we enjoyed with other Brooks films, but there’s still value in a movie that embraces and blends classic genre pictures with a humanist voice. If there’s one thing it has in common with his other work, it’s the director’s respect for the underdogs and disdain for the rich, vain, and stupid.
“I like dares,” Brooks said about why he made “Life Stinks” in 1991. “With every movie, you need a secret little engine that pulls the movie, and our love for our fellow human beings, and our horror of the conditions of the homeless, pulls the movie along. We’re on the side of the angels.”
Sadly, audiences were not on the movie’s side. “Life Stinks” was released on July 26, 1991, but sales stunk (sorry, but you gotta hit the easy ones). The movie opened in 12th place with a $1.9 million weekend gross. It lost nearly 70 percent of its already small audience in the second week, earning $602,658 for 17th place. To give you more perspective, the per-screen average of “Life Stinks” in its second week was $713, less than half the average of “V.I. Warshawski,” which was also an immediate cinematic bomb. It was that bad, and after week two, that’s all she wrote. Indeed, life stinks (again, sorry, but I also did not name the movie).
Reaction to “Life Stinks” from reviewers seemingly inspired the catchphrase of “The Critic,” an animated adult comedy series that debuted a few years later. “Life Stinks” earned a low 17 percent approval from Rotten Tomatoes critics, and audience metrics recorded a score of only 45 percent. The movie did find a few admiring fans, including Roger Ebert.
“‘Life Stinks’ is a new direction in Brooks’ directing career,” Ebert wrote. “The typical note in most of his earlier work was cheerful vulgarity, as he went for the laugh, no matter what. He has made some of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, including “The Producers,’ ‘Blazing Saddles,’ and ‘Young Frankenstein.’ This is not one of them. It has its laughs, but it’s a more thoughtful film, more softhearted toward its characters. It’s warm and poignant.”
This movie is unlikely to ever make the first paragraph of Brooks’s Wikipedia entry. Still, just because “Life Stinks” won’t be what the legendary comedian/actor/writer/director will be remembered for, there’s still a little gold in the deep cuts of such a prolific career. “Life Stinks” is just the title, but the verb is inaccurate.
At the Box Office: Many movies did considerably better than “Life Stinks” this weekend. Maintaining a cyborg grip on the top spot was “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” adding another $11 million to its $133.6 million total so far. In second place was the debut of “Mobsters,” a crime movie that basically adopts the “Young Guns” formula to the mafia. “Mobsters” earned $6 million in its first weekend.
Rounding out the top five was “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” with $5.4 million, the Disney re-release of “101 Dalmatians” with $5.2 million, and “Boyz n the Hood” with $4.7 million.
Unfortunately, Mel Brooks wasn’t the only movie star to have a rough movie launch. The previously mentioned “V.I. Warshawski,” an action-comedy starring Kathleen Turner as a private detective, fizzed out at $3.6 million to land at 11th place, just ahead of “Life Stinks.” Two more comedy legends also ate it this weekend: “Another You,” starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, tanked with $1.5 million in 13th place.
In the News: Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is arrested and confesses to killing 17 men in a case that would make national news; A federal judge lifted the ban on regional telephone companies offering informational services like banking and shopping, opening the door to the modern digital age we know today; Paul Ruebens, better known as Pee-Wee Herman, was arrested in an adult movie theater in Florida. The embarrassing incident did lead to one great moment at the MTV Video Awards later that year; The romantic ballad from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” by Bryan Adams, reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 a month after the movie’s release;
Next Week: “Doc Hollywood”
Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on July 23, 2021.