Brooks reaches for reality as well as laughs


While everyone was looking the other way, Mel Brooks seems to have become an elder statesman.

As his films have become more widely spaced ("Life Stinks" is his first since "Spaceballs" in 1987), Mr. Brooks has placed himself in the Streisand-Beatty-Redford category -- free from financial pressure and working only when the mood strikes.

He is possessed of a perfect self-assurance that allows him to walk away from the game for years at a time. The last comic to put himself in that position was Charles Chaplin and, in some ways, "Life Stinks" is Mr. Brooks' "Modern Times."

After beginning his career as a broad burlesque comedian, as Chaplin did, Mr. Brooks is now trying to incorporate an element of social reality into his work.

In "Life Stinks," which Mr. Brooks directed from a script by Rudy DeLuca, Steve Haberman and himself, he plays Goddard Bolt ("God," for short), a grasping, Trump-like Los Angeles real-estate tycoon.

On the eve of his greatest and most heinous triumph -- the destruction of L.A.'s skid-row district to make way for Bolt City -- Bolt allows himself to be lured into a bet by his most vicious rival, Vance Crasswell (Jeffrey Tambor). Crasswell will turn over a key piece of property if Bolt can survive for 30 days in the district without money or credit cards.

It is, of course, harder than he thinks. Once Bolt has been dropped off by his limo and stripped of his gold card, he is kicked from sidewalk to bench to loading dock, unable to feed himself until he makes friends with Sailor (Howard Morris), a veteran street dweller.

As always with Mr. Brooks, there are moments of absolute hilarity as well as extended passages that don't work at all. What's new is Mr. Brooks' grasping for pathos, both through the character of Sailor (who is meant to be a sadly genuine schizophrenic) and the beautiful bag lady Molly, played (not always with restraint) by Lesley Ann Warren.

This is a poverty without pain, set in a basically benign, protective world that everywhere contradicts the film's title. But if Mr. Brooks doesn't get the sting of reality he's looking for, he does succeed with the film's fantasy elements.

'Life Stinks'

Starring Mel Brooks.

Directed by Mel Brooks.

Released by MGM.

Rated PG-13.

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