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Taking the off ramp to reality

When Sherman McCoy, the hero of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, took the wrong exit ramp into the Bronx, the result was a merciless flaying of New York's rich and famous. When Mel Brooks, the director of "Life Stinks," took the wrong exit ramp into downtown Los Angeles, the result was a warmhearted comedy about the homeless.

"It all has to do with vacuums," Brooks was explaining the other day. "Your car has all of these tubes in it, and when they suck, it goes. And when they don't suck, it doesn't go, and my hoses weren't sucking that day and I had to get off the freeway, and I coasted for a block, and I was in Calcutta."

He could not believe his eyes. Homeless men and women drifted on the sidewalks like the ghosts of everyone who had ever walked those streets. He got out of his car to look for a telephone, and went for a walk instead. No one bothered him. In an alley, he found a woman named Molly who was living there.

"If she had been a little girl, you would have said she was playing house," Brooks said. "She had a little plastic cup and a little plastic saucer. This was where she lived. I talked with her. She wasn't crazy or anything. She said she had been married, and the marriage ended, and she started paying rent, and the rent went up, and she couldn't pay it, and she moved into a transient hotel, and then she moved out to the streets. She said the streets were cleaner and safer than the hotel."

That's what happens to a lot of people, Brooks said. The rent goes up. They're capable of holding a job and paying the rent up to a certain point, but then the rent goes up to maybe only $50 or $100 above that point, and they can't pay it, and they're homeless. And then of course they can't keep things together to hold a job, and it's hard for them to get mail or give an address, and they enter the vast invisible population of the cities. They are people who do not carry any keys because they have no doors to open.

We were having this conversation one evening before the premiere of "Life Stinks," the comedy inspired by Brooks' discovery of the homeless. A meeting room had been booked in the Four Seasons hotel, and it was stocked with food and drink and filled with all of the people Mel knew in town - from Kup and Essie to Jerry and Sue Wexler, from the exhibitors to the publicists to the journalists to his old pals. It is always this way with Brooks; the new guys in Hollywood hire consultants to tell them when, and where, and how, to meet the people who can do them the most good. Mel just invites everybody.

He was sitting at a small table with a candle on it, talking about what some people have called the Reaganuts - the mental patients thrown out onto the streets of the big cities when the Reagan and Bush administrations closed halfway houses. Mel was asking why anyone had to go homeless when millions of square feet of empty office space fill every downtown. He held his hands to the heat of the candle. There we were, in the crowded room, the last liberal Democrats, warming ourselves at the flickering flame.

Because Mel Brooks is incapable of discussing any subject without turning it toward humor, however, he soon stopped complaining about the empty office space and started speculating about the difficulties of renting space in a building filled with the homeless.

"Let's say Prudential comes to have a look at a potential office suite. Or Citibank. What do you tell them? These will be your floors, here and here, and take our advice and don't give any loose change to your fellow tenants. It only encourages them. Oh, and we'll remodel and evict to suit."

That led to somebody quoting Steve Dahl's counsel for the homeless ("Take my advice and start with an apartment. You have no idea, the problems associated with home ownership.") And then it was time to go see "Life Stinks."

What the movie is . . . is basically the first BrooksFilm that Mel has signed his name to. There are two Mel Brookses out in Hollywood, although the American public knows only one of them. We know zany Mel Brooks, the director of "The Producers," "The Twelve Chairs," "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," "Silent Movie," "To Be or Not To Be," "History of the World -- Part 1," "High Anxiety" and "Spaceballs." Collectively, and in some cases individually, these are some of the funniest movies ever made. And the persona of the man who makes them seems to be somebody like Mel Funn, the director played by Brooks in "Silent Movie."

The other Mel Brooks - maybe we should call him Melvin - is a Hollywood executive whose company produces some of the most prestigious movies around. This semi-anonymous Melvin's credits include "The Elephant Man," "Frances," "My Favorite Year," "84 Charing Cross Road" and "The Fly," although if you look under his name in The Filmgoer's Companion, you will not find any of these credits, because Mel does not give himself screen credit. He's afraid people will see the name and expect a comedy.

"After I had the experience with the people on the street that day," he said, "I went back and started thinking about a movie. A screenplay was brought to me, more or less suggested by `Sullivan's Travels' (the 1941 comedy by Preston Sturges about a Hollywood director who becomes a bum for a month to see how the poor really live). It had a lot of appeal for me, and we worked on it for a year, and we had `Life Stinks.' But it was sort of a BrooksFilm. It wasn't a bust-your-gut comedy."

Brooks thought maybe he should get someone else to make it. But his wife, actress Anne Bancroft, read it and said she loved it: "You're finally going to make a BrooksFilm for yourself!" Brooks ended this part of the story right there, as if to indicate that he always does whatever his wife tells him.

"Life Stinks" is a BrooksFilm, all right, and not a zany Mel Funn production. But it's not quite as serious as "The Elephant Man." What it is - and this is surprising from Mel Brooks - is a sentimental fantasy with a lot of heart, some big laughs and an MGM song and dance number. The movie stars Brooks as a land developer who goes to live in an urban ghetto for 30 days, with no money or credit cards, on a bet (if he wins, he gets to buy the land).

What he discovers are soup kitchens, rats, cold, hunger, thirst and an amazing camaraderie with people like a fading but beautiful bag lady (Lesley Ann Warren) and an old-timer named Sailor (Howard Morris). The plot could have been borrowed from "Sullivan's Travels" or any of a hundred other Depression-era movies, but the visuals would have been a little more uplifting: This movie does take place in realistic poverty, and one of the more memorable scenes involves an experience Brooks had when the original Molly took him to a mission: "There was a guy there with a kernel of corn stuck to his face, and I was fascinated by it. I wanted so badly to reach out and flick it off."

Having co-written, produced, directed and starred in the movie, Brooks is now engaged in opening it. Like the showmen of an earlier generation, he doesn't sit at home on the telephone, he tours. He took the film to the Cannes Film Festival in May, for a preview screening that got a better review from Vincent Canby of the New York Times than any of the official entries in the festival. He trekked around the country in April and June, sneak-previewing it, and making small adjustments. Now he is touring to promote it, giving interviews to all who will listen, and cocktail parties for everybody else he can think of. This is not a movie that has simply been handed over to the distribution boys.

As he talks about "Life Stinks," a little seriousness creeps out. "This problem is staring us on the face, and it isn't going away," he said. "People should have a place to lay down their heads at night, and our society is too cheapskate to give them one. If you made a movie about the homeless, maybe nobody would come. But if you make the movie about a megalomaniac goofball, and put him in the middle of the homeless and call it a comedy, maybe somebody will come to see it."

He didn't hire the homeless as actors in his movie, Brooks said, "because a lot of them are delusional, and literally would not know the difference between reality and the movie. We used real actors. But we hired as many homeless as we could as helpers, odd-job people, things like that."

And what about you, Mel? You make a nice dollar. Have you gotten to the point where it would be difficult to go back to living in poverty? Do you think you would find it difficult to live on the streets?

"I do. You need a little of the wherewithal to live in this world. And the problem is that once you get into the habit of making a couple of bucks, you want to make a couple more bucks. There are some cliches that cover it, like, `How much can you need? How much can you spend?' But then it gets into the realm of ego, arrogance, and a kind of ping-pong that they play in Hollywood.

"What `Life Stinks' is all about, really, philosophically, in a nutshell is, `What are we worth?' We think our worth is what we've got, our bank account. The struggle that my character goes through is to discover that it ain't what you got, it's your goodness, your insides, your guts, your courage, your self-esteem, your dignity. But we don't think of it that way."

Except once in a while in a BrooksFilm.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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