Andy (Jim Broadbent), a senior chef in a large London catering facility, buys a dilapidated fast-food van from a disreputable acquaintance named Patsy (Stephen Rea). He plans to clean, restore and put it into service on a local fast-food round. Wendy, his hard-working, good-natured and innuendo-prone wife, (Alison Steadman) is sensibly sceptical about the project but understands her husband's ambitions. Their twin 22-year-old daughters (Natalie and Nicola) have profoundly different attitudes: tomboyish Natalie, who works as a plumber's mate (Claire Skinner), thinks it is a good idea if it will make her father happy, whereas the bitter, shut-in Nicola (Jane Horrocks), contemptuously and typically dismisses Andy as a "Capitalist!" Late at night, an anguished Nicola binges on chocolate and snacks, then forces herself to vomit. Natalie – awake in the next room – overhears her.
Aubrey (Timothy Spall), a hyperactive but emotionally labile family friend, is opening a Parisian-themed restaurant named The Regret Rien. Wendy accepts a part-time job as waitress in the restaurant, but her and Andy's initial confidence in the scheme is undermined by Aubrey's unorthodox approach to the interior décor (a cluttered, half-realised combination of outmoded French clichés, such as a bicycle in the bay window, and of tasteless Victoriana such as a stuffed cat's head framed by broken accordion sconces) and by his menu. His singularly grotesque interpretation of the excesses of nouvelle cuisine includes dishes such as saveloy on a bed of lychees, liver in lager and pork cyst.
During the afternoon, whilst the rest of the family are out at work, Nicola's lover (unnamed, played by David Thewlis) comes to the family home to have sex with her. It appears that Nicola can only be aroused by a combination of light bondage and the consumption of chocolate spread from her chest – a practice to which he only reluctantly agrees. He ultimately loses patience with her, accusing her of being "a bit vacant" and incapable of having a sincere, adult conversation or allowing herself to enjoy his companionship. She calls his bluff and loses: frustrated but resolute, he leaves her and her fragile emotional state deteriorates even further.
The opening night of The Regret Rien is a disaster. Wendy volunteers her help when it becomes clear that Aubrey's waitress has let him down – she has gone to Prague with her boyfriend. And Aubrey forgot to advertise the opening of the restaurant, with the result that no customers turn up. Aubrey gets hopelessly drunk, takes to the pavement and rails against the world, tells Wendy that he fancies her, starts taking his clothes off and passes out, 'a quivering, sobbing gelatinous blob of disappointment.' Wendy is forced to deal not only with him but with his glum and passive sous-chef/dogsbody, Paula (Moya Brady).
Meanwhile, Andy and Patsy have gone to their local pub, where Andy gets uncharacteristically but emphatically drunk and ends up sleeping inside the decrepit fast-food van in his driveway. Wendy returns home from the disastrous opening night of Aubrey's restaurant to find him there: unnerved by her bizarre evening, she loses her temper with the whole family.
Phlegmatic and dry-humoured Natalie enjoys her unconventional work as a plumber, the simple pleasures of a pint and a game of pool, and dreams of visiting the US. In contrast, the fidgety and isolated Nicola becomes increasingly agitated, aggressive and reclusive, and Wendy finally confronts her. During the course of their long and anguished confrontation, Wendy makes it clear to Nicola that she is deeply worried about her, for example, wondering why she makes no attempt to get involved with the causes she claims to believe in. She tells Nicola of the struggle she and Andy endured to care for their baby daughters – how it meant she never went to college and Andy working in a "job he hates." It emerges that during an earlier phase of Nicola's bulimia, she almost starved to death. Ashamed and angry, Nicola is convinced that Wendy and the rest of the family hate her. Instead, as the exasperated Wendy tells her, "We don't hate you! We love you, you stupid girl!" and leaves the room, deeply upset. The brittle behavioural armour with which Nicola has protected her psyche is now shattered and she breaks down sobbing.
Meanwhile, Andy is seen running his kitchen at work with energy and authority but slips on a spoon, breaking his ankle. Wendy receives the news with a characteristic mixture of sympathy and amusement. She drives him home from the hospital; aided by Natalie she makes him comfortable, and then goes to see Nicola, still in her room. Mother and daughter reconcile.
The film ends with Natalie and Nicola sitting peacefully in the evening sunshine in the back garden. Natalie observes that Nicola must own up to her parents about her bulimia. She then asks Nicola "D'you want some money?" and Nicola accepts gratefully, the first time in the film where she has accepted an offer of help.Alison Steadman as Wendy. She works in a baby clothing shop and teaches a dance class to young children. She is the emotional core of the family and talks continually, keeping up an amused running commentary on everything around her, but concerned about the welfare of her family, especially her troubled daughter Nicola. She loves her husband, but recognises that he lacks entrepreneurial spirit; she describes him as having "two speeds, slow and stop".
Jim Broadbent as Andy, Wendy's husband and a professional head cook in an industrial kitchen. Andy is presented as a loving but slightly ineffectual husband and father, fond of tinkering in his shed and buying broken things which he plans to get around to fixing at some unspecified future date. By contrast, the scenes depicting Andy at work show him as a highly competent executive chef.
Claire Skinner as Natalie, Andy and Wendy's daughter, a plumber who spends her leisure time playing pool and drinking with her male workmates. She never shows any interest in dating or romance, but reads travel brochures about the United States in her room at night. Natalie is described by her mother as "happy", but she is the only principal character in the film who never smiles.
Jane Horrocks as Nicola, Natalie's twin sister. Nicola refuses to work for ideological reasons, is extremely thin, smokes continually, eats her meals separately from the others and criticises the behaviour of everyone around her, largely on the grounds of a superficial kind of political correctness. Her favourite expression is "Bollocks!" It is revealed early on that Nicola is bulimic; she keeps a locked suitcase full of snacks and sweets under her bed, and late at night she binges on them and then makes herself vomit.
Timothy Spall as Aubrey, an old friend of the family. Aubrey is nervous, fidgety and has poor impulse control, often randomly destroying nearby objects; the other way he vents his tensions is by playing the drums very badly. He considers himself a culinary "genius", but his cooking is eccentric to the point of inedible, and he lacks many basic social skills; early in the film he visits Wendy on the pretext of giving her a pineapple which he suspects to be "on the turn", all the while pummelling it between his hands as if it were an American football. He appears to harbour unrequited lusts for both Wendy and Nicola.
The film was a co-production between British Screen Productions, Channel Four Films and Thin Man Films, a production company created by Mike Leigh and producer Simon Channing-Williams. This was the first release by Thin Man, who have produced all Leigh's films since Life Is Sweet.
The script was developed by Leigh and the cast, employing his established practice of collectively improvising and rehearsing for several weeks prior to actual shooting. For example, Aubrey's bizarre recipes were devised by Leigh and Timothy Spall over the course of an evening, and then checked for plausibility with a professional chef, who advised them about which ones were technically impossible to prepare; all the ones that appear in the film are, as Leigh put it, "all feasible, gross as it sounds."
David Thewlis, who played Nicola's anonymous lover, was disappointed at being given such a small role. Leigh promised him that the next time he considered Thewlis for a role in a film, "he'd be given a fair slice of the pie." Thewlis' next role in a Leigh film was his award-winning performance as the lead character Johnny in Naked.
The film was shot entirely on location in Enfield, Middlesex, UK and used local people as extras including an Enfield-based dance school for the opening title sequence.
Alison Chitty found the house in Enfield for Life is Sweet and fell in love with it because of its garden shed. She also found the old mobile snack-bar, which Rea's Patsy sells on to Broadbent's Andy as a pig in a poke, in Northampton, and painted it up.
Life is Sweet 's visual world is bright, jaunty, primary-coloured – Leigh's next film Naked was conceived in blacks and blues and a 'dark, dilapidated grunginess', the contrast with this, its predecessor, very marked.
The film received very favourable reviews, and it is one of the few films on the Rotten Tomatoes review collaboration site to enjoy a 100% fresh rating at present. The Guardian film reviewer awarded the film seven stars out of a possible ten. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times was full of praise, commenting that in spite of the constraints of independent film production, the film was "as funny, spontaneous and free as if it had been made on a lark by a millionaire" He added that "By the end of Life is Sweet we are treading close to the stuff of life itself – to the way we all struggle and make do, compromise some of our dreams and insist on the others. Watching this movie made me realize how boring and thin many movies are; how they substitute plots for the fascinations of life." Hal Hinson of the Washington Post called the film "sublime" and "gently brilliant". Desson Thompson of the same paper agreed, praising Leigh for discovering "the tragic beauty of the mundane".
David Sexton in the Times Literary Supplement was critical however, and said that "the film never transcends sit-com and remains static and anecdotal, its unit the scene, not the complete story." Further, he wrote that the film is, " the product of an unresolved attitude to its subject matter and in particular of an uneasy relation to questions of class." Philip French, in The Observer countered this idea: "Leigh has been called patronising. The charge is false. The Noël Coward/David Lean film This Happy Breed, evoked by Leigh in several panning shots across suburban back gardens, is patronising. Coward and Lean pat their characters on the back...Leigh shakes them, hugs them, sometimes despairs over them, but never thinks that they are other than versions of ourselves."Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, USA, 1991: Best Supporting Actress – Jane Horrocks
Independent Spirit Awards, USA, 1992: Best Foreign Film (nominated)
Bodil Awards, Denmark, 1992: Best European Film
London Critics Circle Film Awards, UK, 1992: British Film of the Year
National Society of Film Critics Awards, USA, 1992
Best Actress – Alison Steadman
Best Supporting Actress – Jane Horrocks
Life is Sweet was initially released on VHS format in the United Kingdom following its theatrical showing, with two subsequent re-releases in 1993 and 2000. It was first released on DVD region 2 on 11 February 2002, with a re-release on 17 March 2008. It was again made available as part of several DVD collections including a triple feature DVD alongside Secrets & Lies and Career Girls on 30 September 2002, a double feature DVD again with Secrets & Lies, released on 3 May 2004, and "The Mike Leigh Feature Film Collection" with featured ten of Leigh's most successful films on 7 April 2008. The film was released on Blu-ray format in the United Kingdom on 28 May 2012.
Life is Sweet was released in the United States and Canada on DVD and Blu-ray on 28 May 2013 via The Criterion Collection. The set contains a newly restored 2K transfer, with special features including a new audio commentary from Mike Leigh, an audio recording of a 1991 interview with Leigh at the National Film Theatre in London, five short films written and directed by Leigh for the television series Five-Minute Films, a new introduction by Leigh, and a booklet featuring an essay from critic David Sterritt.
The film was released in Australia on DVD region 4 on 7 July 2002 from Shock Records.