Phil, like many professional drivers, is an amateur philosopher, 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 largely improvised films tend toward portraits of the downtrodden. Rarely does Leigh offer anything close to a transcendent ending, preferring to redeem his characters with the small joys of life. (It's no accident that the rare boisterousness of the Gilbert and Sullivan film Topsy Turvy garnered Leigh more mainstream notice than usual.)
Among the walking wounded are Phil's family. Penny (Lesley Manville) functions as his wife, though we learn that they never bothered to get married. She works at a grocery store, somehow managing to be the major breadwinner on a Safeway salary. Phil never gets up in time to corner the morning rush-hour crowd. Daughter Rachel (Alison Garland) has her 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 on the couch watching TV or passively kicking around a football, pausing occasionally to beat the living bejesus out of any poor fool who tries to join in.
It could almost be a setup for a sitcom. Normally, such a 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. Rory calls the family dinner "shit," then bursts into a ridiculous, blustery rage because his mother finds that assessment offensive. One character's notion of foreplay is to vigorously poke at the bruise he gave his girlfriend during a previous encounter. A stereotypical French tourist (Kathryn Hunter) is played too broadly, but that's OK; experimenting with bigger laughs can only be a good thing in Mike Leigh's world.