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By Alan Scherstuhl
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The question "All right?" is asked of every character, on many occasions, throughout Mike Leigh's latest film All or Nothing. That no one ever seems to stop and ask or answer the question in any serious, meaningful way is the heart of the issue in this portrait of three neighboring families in a low-income apartment block. No one's all right, but neither is anyone capable of reaching out and asking for help. "What's 'is face...'dignity'" is how schlumpy minicab driver Phil (Timothy Spall) puts it, in a telling anecdote about an elderly man with a walker who hired the cab for one block and insisted on paying the minimum fare nonetheless. Pride's one thing, but no one here seems to remember the fall it precedes.
Phil, like many professional drivers, is an amateur philosopher of sorts, occasionally mumbling about "the fickle finger of fate" and summing up his general take on life as, "Tide comes in, tide goes out, you're born, you die, that's it." It's hardly a stretch to attribute a similar mindset to director Leigh, whose films tend toward heavily improvised portraits of the downtrodden. Rarely does Leigh offer anything close to a transcendent ending, but rather gives his characters redemption in the small joys of life.
Among the walking wounded are Phil's family, beginning with Penny (Lesley Manville), who functions as his wife even though we learn that they never bothered to actually get married. Penny works at a grocery store, somehow managing to be the major breadwinner on a Safeway salary since Phil never gets up in time to corner the morning rush hour crowd. Phil's kids have his genetics, weighing probably twice as much as slim Penny, though daughter Rachel (Alison Garland) at least has mum's motivation, and holds down a cleaning job at the old folks' home. Son Rory (James Corden), on the other hand, can either be found lying on the couch watching TV or passively kicking around a football, pausing occasionally to beat the living bejeezus out of any poor fool who tries to join in.
Phil's work colleague Ron (Paul Jesson) has serious anger management issues, and a wife (Marion Bailey) who's so chronically blind-drunk that she might as well have Alzheimer's. To no one's surprise, their daughter Samantha (Sally Hawkins) is the neighborhood slut, currently trying to score the boyfriend of surly Donna (Helen Coker), daughter of the perkiest of Phil's neighbors, Maureen (Ruth Sheen, often stealing the show).
It could almost be a set-up for a sitcom -- in fact, if you stop to sketch out the film's dramatic arc, it plays out like one, starting out of the gate with funny character bits, building to a crisis that involves a disease-of-the-week. Normally, any kind of sitcom comparison would be a cutting put-down, but in Leigh's case it's actually a good thing. Given that he tends to be heavy on the violins (metaphorical and literal), it's a pleasure to note the occasional in-your-face irony -- Phil's minicab company is named "Gladiator Cabs," and Samantha sports a skimpy "Harvard" top -- and amusing character quirks, such as Rory calling the family dinner "shit," then bursting into a ridiculous, blustery rage because his mother finds that assessment offensive; or Donna's dumbass boyfriend's notion of foreplay, which is to poke vigorously at the bruise he gave her on a previous occasion. Only a stereotypical French tourist (Kathryn Hunter) is played a little too broadly, but that's OK; experimenting with bigger laughs can only be a good thing in Mike Leigh's world.
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