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ALL OR NOTHING

Lonesome Town

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Despite their realism, or maybe because of it, the films of Mike Leigh can be an acquired taste. It's especially true of one like Leigh's latest, All or Nothing. None of the characters are bad people, really, but some of them are so shut down by life that at first you might feel like checking them for a pulse.

The first we meet is Phil (Timothy Spall), a London cabbie. You might call Phil melancholy if he seemed more engaged, but really he just appears exhausted, and he's dropped to the fewest RPMs compatible with internal combustion.

Then there's Penny (Lesley Manville), who works the robotic job of supermarket cashier. Penny and Phil are a longtime couple who never married; when they go home to their gray, institutional-looking apartment complex, they find their daughter Rachel (Alison Garland), a quiet, heavyset and somnolently serious girl who works in a nursing home, and their son Rory (James Corden), who seems an exception to that "shut down" rule. Big, chunky and lumbering, he's a teen-age pylon of rage and resentment. But he's too lazy for either quality to translate into much action, except when he's beating smaller boys.

Unhappy in its own way, Phil's family is surrounded by other families unhappy in theirs. Neighbors include Carol, a faded looker gone sadly to drink, and her husband, Ron, Phil's bitter fellow cabbie; their teen-age daughter, Samantha, seems determined to get into trouble, wearing skirts short enough to compete with her low tops to see which will make it first to the middle. The only adult with a spark is Maureen (Ruth Sheen), a bright-eyed cashier who takes in washing, but even she's bedeviled by her hostile, rebellious teen-age daughter, Donna, who's inexplicably attached to a brutish boyfriend.

Leigh is famous for the guided improvisation techniques through which he develops his films, working with actors until a script emerges. Those films (Secrets & Lies, Career Girls) have people and places rather than dramatic set-ups, humor instead of jokes, and he builds his characters from the ground up, typically starting with their jobs. In Hollywood, characters who aren't lawyers, rogue cops or secret agents (or, more lately, superheroes) usually have jobs that are merely a means to the plot's end. But in Leigh's brand of social realism, work is key -- especially here, and especially for Phil and Penny. In his cab, Phil has a series of 10-minute relationships with people he can easily ignore; he's become a spectator to the life passing behind his bench seat. Penny, stationed at a chirping cash register, is bound to routine. Even her sniping at slothful, belligerent Rory and passive, ambitiousless Phil are a kind of rote resistance to it all.

So what does Leigh mean to tell us, scoring this diary of everyday despair to sad guitar music, and shooting in the grubbier sectors of gray old London? Something about love, for sure -- how we can't get it from people from whom we want it, and won't take it from people who have it too readily on offer. And how easy it is to get sucked into just not caring any more.

That would be heavy enough, but Leigh and his actors are after something else, too. It hits home in the person of Rachel's elderly coworker, whose pathetic proposal that she stop over at his place to watch a video grows from his very accurate perception that she's as lonely as he is. It also resides in Leigh's wide-angle shots of life in a barren courtyard as seen from the high balcony of a housing project, and in Phil's sudden realization -- during a random chat with an oddly inquisitive French passenger -- that what happens in his house isn't what he thought it was after all.

All or Nothing, in short, is mostly about loneliness, and why we sometimes can't do anything about it, though sometimes we can. Leigh's actors, most of whom will be unfamiliar to U.S. audiences, communicate this beautifully, partly because it doesn't depend on their performances so much as grow out of them. In brief glances, Garland shows us steady Rachel's desperation. Corden is hilarious and terrifying as the overgrown man-child Rory, and Sheen razor-sharp as the unflappable Maureen. Manville and Spall are utterly believable as a struggling working-class couple, her eyes watery with unexpressed frustration, his deeply sad with unacknowledged regret. Some might quibble at the film's ending, which is about as close as Leigh gets to a group hug. But it's hard to fault a filmmaker for having faith in people's ability to change, and Leigh is among the few who can get us there with his credibility intact. * * *

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