- The Washington Times - Friday, November 1, 2002

The title "Punch-Drunk Love" might be better suited to Mike Leigh's new domestic tear-jerker, "All or Nothing," which observes a London family with so many strikes against it that the filmmaker seems to preclude any hopeful alternative apart from a desperate endorsement of conjugal love, rediscovered and reaffirmed in very discouraging circumstances. In the words of a World War II torch song, it appears to be: "No love, no nothing."

Specifically, Mr. Leigh urges a heroic generosity on a sorely disillusioned common-law spouse named Penny (Lesley Manville), a thin and despondent grocery clerk who would appear to be justified in losing all faith in an incorrigible sloth of a mate named Phil (Timothy Spall), who works as a cabbie and appears to be approaching a terminal embrace of inertia during much of the film.

Penny and Phil have two obese youngsters: quiet and touching Rachel (Alison Garland), who works as a maid in a retirement home, and maddening Rory (James Corden), a budding monster who rants at his mum while limiting his mobility to the space between the dining-room table and the living-room sofa. At either station, his attention is fixed on the telly, rather like Rod Steiger's gargantuan mother in the film version of "The Loved One."

Salvaging Rachel (a reader and a saver, hopefully) from the severe disadvantages of a dysfunctional family would appear to be the most urgent problem within camera range, but Mr. Leigh has a soft spot for near-defeatist, stoical Phil. It's his morale that seems to hold the key to salvation.

While emphasizing the estrangement of Phil and Penny, Mr. Leigh also devotes some time to a pair of neighboring households along a corridor of dreary upper-story flats. Phil's passivity is less of an immediate threat to the community at large than the accident-prone tendencies of a fellow cabbie named Ron (Paul Jesson), a drunk whose wife, Carol (Marion Bailey), has reached the falling-down stage.

Their daughter Samantha is a defiant sexpot, prematurely hardened by contempt for her parents and looking for trouble of a carnal sort, which she strong-arms from the scurvy but available boyfriend of a neighbor named Donna (Helen Coker), a chronic frowner with an unwanted pregnancy to magnify her apprehension and bad temper.

An incongruously cheerful outlook is entrusted to Donna's mum, Maureen (Ruth Sheen), whose mate evidently vanished somewhere along the way. She works with Penny and moonlights as a resident laundress and ironer. She also reveals a wonderful singing voice during an abbreviated rendition of "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" at a neighborhood pub.

The mother-daughter wrangling and patching up that distinguish Maureen and Donna's relationship have been Mike Leigh specialties in previous domestic comedies. He adds a witty new aspect in Maureen's mischievous refusal to take any of her girl's foul moods and remarks in earnest. This stabilizing flair is the happiest single character attribute in "All or Nothing."

It becomes apparent that Mr. Leigh hasn't thought of any means for documenting a mother-daughter bond between Penny and Rachel, although you would think they might have something in common that could be articulated before the fade-out. Phil's disinclination to defend Penny when she's assailed by repulsive Rory would appear to be a sore point of long standing. Phil's attitude, "Take no notice," is no comfort to his hardworking and embittered better half.

Arguably, Mr. Leigh sets up a situation in which the question, "Can this family be saved?" does not lend itself to optimistic replies. The odds against reconciliation and a fresh start look pretty daunting, and Mr. Leigh doesn't improve them with the climactic crisis that supposedly encourages a ray of hope.

The line between heartfelt pathos and insufferable bathos grows paper-thin in "All or Nothing." As a matter of fact, the satirical outlook immortalized by W.C. Fields in "The Fatal Glass of Beer" looks like a far healthier approach to dysfunctional families: When you have a collection this hapless, better to emphasize slapstick than neediness.

The absence of adequate comic resistance to the pathetic undertow may encourage a bit of groping for laughs where none are intended by the filmmaker. For example, I kept hoping Tracey Ullman was playing all the female passengers who turn up in the back seat of Phil's cab. Alas, she wasn't, but it's easier to slip a change of mood into "All or Nothing" if you fantasize Miss Ullman in a string of unbilled cameos.

Pity and terror can go only so far when contemplating Phil's failure to hold up his end as father, mate or breadwinner. He needs a cab full of Chers from "Moonstruck," ordering him to "Snap out of it."


**

TITLE: "All or Nothing"

RATING: R (Frequent profanity; occasional sexual candor; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse; fleeting graphic violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Mike Leigh

RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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