"The Sweet Life" (2003) is the most homemade-looking film I've reviewed in a long while. It's also the best low-budget (just under $200,000) film I've seen in a long while. The writing from first-time feature director Rocco Simonelli is funny and heady without being pretentious or forced. And while the staging and lighting remind you of a soap opera that was filmed in different locations instead of on a sound stage, there's something about this little sleeper of an indie comedy that makes you like it (trailer).
The characters, for example. Though the acting is competent at best, you don't mind spending time with these people in order to find out what they're going to say and do next. The delivery may be a little amateurish at times, but you can sense what Simonelli and co-writer Roy Frumkes ("The Substitute") were constructing in every scene. They give us well-rounded characters with full-bodied lines of dialogue that continue to surprise.
"The Sweet Life" begins with an odd segment that reminds you of an infomercial or a documentary, with Michael (James Lorinz) sitting by a flowerbed and talking directly into the camera about his life's lot . . . compared to the brother we see in flashback getting the girl and eating candy that Michael had left on the porch for her. Flash forward to present time and we see Michael and Frankie (Robert Mobley) at a bar together. In moments, Frankie is hitting on a server who already has a boyfriend . . . and succeeding. And Michael? He's about as transparent as John C. Reilly's "Mr. Cellophane" character from "Chicago." But something clicks when Michael sees his brother kissing Lila (Barbara Sicuranza) in the bar. One look at that lower-back tattoo and he's having brother-envy all over again.
That's when the competition starts; the comedy begins when Lila decides to set Michael up with her roommate, Sherri (Joan Jett), whose idea of a fun first date is taking Michael to her favorite tough biker bar . . . on her bike. Joan Jett (who, with her Blackhearts, turns up on the soundtrack) does a nice job in her romantic comedy debut. She's butch, she's tough, and she's the perfect foil to Michael, whose droll intellectual commentary and asides remind you of "Frasier." "This is like a ‘Twilight Zone" written by Gore Vidal," he says at one point, and then, trying to get Lila to follow her dream of being a massage therapist, launches into a monologue about all that she could do, including "something called rolfing. I'm not sure what it is, but I think it's massage for bulimics." Par-um-bump! And then, telling her even dance companies hire massage therapists, he adds, "By this time next year you could be getting paid to fondle Baryshnikov." Just as clever (though a bit paternalistic, on Michael's part) is a scene in which he takes Lila to see "La Dolce Vita" ("The Sweet Life"), which exposes the growing gap between them.
There are some very funny bits between Michael and Sherri, and between Michael and Lila, as the two plotlines run parallel and occasionally cross. "A guy like him has got standards?" he says, hearing that Lila thinks his brother is nicer than he really is. "Yeah, like a height requirement. You must be THIS tall to ride the Frankie." Oh, it's on. Like a sequel to "Moonstruck" that features brothers who won't quit vying for the same girl, even after the final "I do"s, the slick businessman and the underpaid assistant editor of a movie magazine each take their best shots . . . and it leads to family chaos in a sequence that's the most forced and contrived in this movie.
"The Sweet Life" isn't rated, but it would probably get an R rating for language and sexual situations. Kinky and passionate sex are several times depicted, but no nudity is shown and body parts are carefully covered. With this film, the script's the thing, and it's a good one. Is it enough to compensate for the low-budget look and the competent-but-not-extraordinary acting? I'd put this one in the high 6 range on the DVD Town scale. It's one of those that makes me wish we could do decimals. Guess I'll have to round up. There's a lot to be said for cleverness.
For a low-budget film the picture quality is decent. "The Sweet Life" is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with very little grain but some edge indistinction. Colors and black levels are fine, though.
The audio is a Dolby Digital Stereo that scrubs out or ignores most of the ambient sounds, with dialogue heavily prioritized. But for a 2.0 track it's robust enough, and the timbre and clarity are fine.
A pretty average audio commentary featuring Simonelli, Lorinz and Sicuranza gives us the usual combination of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and production notes. It'll be worth a listen mostly for would-be filmmakers who'd like to get to this point in their careers. Simonelli has a lot to say about his choices. Other than that, there's the standard 30-minute making-of feature, seven deleted/extended scenes, a trailer, and a few outtakes out of more than 30 hours of film.
Somebody give Rocco Simonelli and Roy Frumkes some money. I'd love to see what these guys could do with a decent budget. If I had to watch one low-budget movie over and over again, I'd pick this one over "Clerks." Sorry Jay and Silent Bob.