In Mike Leigh’s newest slice of British life, the filmmaker does more than present us with a close scrutiny of ordinary people, some of whom live lives of quiet desperation. He stacks the deck with so many heavy-handed signifiers that the film takes on the aura of smug sanctimony. The long-married couple who stand as the fulcrum for the other characters are Tom and Gerry and yes, they are cartoons. We know they’re really good people because she has long grey hair and buck teeth; he is bearded and spectacled and both are clothed in comfortable post-hippie garments and shoes. She is a social worker/counselor and he is a geologist but their avocation of gardening and growing their own food speaks to their worth - they’re the salt of the earth. Unlike their animated predecessors, Tom and Gerry never fight; they are always loving and affectionate towards each other and to the other people in the film.
These include Mary, the alcoholic secretary with dyed hair who has worked with Gerry for more than 20 years and Ken, Tom’s old buddy who has fallen on hard times. Like Mary, Ken is alcoholic too with a big beer belly and a gluttonous appetite. Both Mary and Ken are chain smokers while Tom & Gerry are models of moderation in food, drink and disposition. Their home is salvation to the two friends with empty lives. Mary, twice-divorced, lives with the Blanche Dubois fantasy that more gentlemen callers are still out there waiting for her fading beauty and specifically, that Joe, the thirty year old son of Tom & Gerry, is a suitable candidate for her affections. The coarse Ken lives with the fantasy that the delicate Mary might be interested in him (he mistakenly thought the cartoon he was in was Beauty & The Beast) By Mike Leigh’s measure, the characters who are needy, lonely and depressed are people who haven’t taken responsibility for their own lives and have chosen booze, nicotine and pipe dreams as substitutes for hard work and therapy. Both Ibsen in The Wild Duck and O’Neill in The Iceman Cometh understood the problems that follow interference from holier than thou do-gooders and created works of complexity instead of one-dimensional characterization. Tom and Gerry are complete and fulfilled according to their creator because they have not consumed more than their share, they have nourished Mother Earth and they have reached out to others both professionally and personally.
How strange a fairy tale this is for a writer who normally deals in kitchen sink reality. Gerry, for example, routinely meets Mary for an after-work drink, knowing full well that her alcoholic friend will consume not a glass but the bottle of wine. As a therapist and friend, wouldn’t she have suggested another venue such as a coffee shop? Should it really have taken Gerry 20 years to tell her friend that she needed counseling? Don’t the Brits have their version of AA? Can Mike Leigh be alive in the world today and still believe that bad things don’t happen to non-smoking, non-boozing, non-overeating people? Disease, unemployment, divorce, problematic children, terrorism - these happen indiscriminately and usually unfairly. A more interesting movie would have exchanged Tom’s truculent, leather-clad nephew for his exemplary son or would have had Gerry fall ill instead of the long-suffering invisible sister-in-law.
Though the performances in this movie lend depth and sensitivity to the characters, at heart these people are cliches. Mary overrides the boundary between neediness and possessiveness when she snaps at Joe’s girlfriend and when her sense of entitlement allows her to enter her friends’ home when they aren’t there and she hasn’t been invited. There she strikes up another pseudo-relationship with Tom’s grief-stricken brother who hardly speaks. There is a reason these characters seem so familiar to us - we have met them before in the plays of O’Neill and Tennessee Williams where the equations aren’t so pat and where the “good” people are themselves flawed instead of saints of infinite patience. There are Tom and Gerrys in the world but usually they’re distinguished by how they cope with their own tragedies, not by being eternal bystanders and sometime facilitators to train wrecks waiting to happen.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here