Heartless CEO and real-estate mogul Goddard Bolt (Brooks) buys half a slum to demolish it, but his rival, Vance Crasswell (Tambor), has bought the other half, with similar plans. After discussing their backgrounds, how Bolt was born into money while Crasswell is a self-made man, they decide to settle ownership of the slum with a bet. Bolt says he can survive anywhere, so will be dropped off inside the slums with no cash, no credit cards, and an ankle-tracker that will sound an alarm if he leaves the area for more than thirty seconds. If Bolt can endure a month as a homeless person, he takes all, if he leaves, the land belongs to Crasswell. As a third condition, he can't reveal his identity to anyone in the slum.
On the streets, Bolt, now going by 'Pepto' because he spent his first night sheltering in a box labeled Pepto-Bismol, makes new friends and learns deep meaningful lessons about the human experience, while Crasswell shamelessly cheats at the bet.
Life Stinks contains examples of:
- An Aesop: Easy to miss but the contrasts between protagonist and antagonist show a cruel wealthy man (Bolt), with a Lack of Empathy who has only ever known riches, only has ignorance as their one true vice. He doesn't know any better, and may learn a thing or two after receiving humble pie. A impoverished man (Crasswell) who climbed his way up to the top, having nothing but utter contempt for the poor as a reminder of his past, is a dangerous sociopath and irredeemably wicked.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: Neither Bolt nor Crasswell is terribly bothered by what will happen to the people living in the slum, until Bolt lives among them.
- Behemoth Battle: In the film's climax, Bolt and Crasswell control cranes to battle one another.
- Berserk Button: Goddard Bolt loses it when the J. Paul Getty bum claims to be richer than him.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Vance Crasswell speaks a lot of being a self-made man and coming from poverty, but is ultimately shown to be even more heartless and callous than the born-into-wealth Bolt.
- Brick Joke:
- After Bolt has been taken off to the hospital:Getty bum: That man is crazy! Why do they allow these people to walk the streets? They ought to help these people!
- Later on, when Bolt gets Crasswell to confess that he cheated, he builds a park, no-cost housing, medical and counseling clinics for the homeless people.
- After Bolt has been taken off to the hospital:
- Cardboard Box Home: Bolt gets his street name, Pepto, for the box he first sleeps in.
- Chekhov's Gag: After Bolt is taken to the hospital, the Getty bum rants:Getty bum: They ought to help these people!
- Later on, after Bolt has exposed Crasswell's fraudulent methods, he builds a park, no rent housing and clinics to help treat the homeless people.
- Comically Missing the Point: At Sailor's funeral.Bolt': Sailor, wherever you are...
Molly: (pointing to the box of ashes) He's in there.
- Evil Lawyer Joke:
- Early on, when Bolt refuses to go back on the bet because he already gave his word and asks the lawyers if they'd go back on their word, Pritchard says "Certainly. We're lawyers."
- And after Bolt finds that his lawyers have betrayed him to help Crasswell, Pritchard justifies it by reminding him "we're lawyers".
- Hypocritical Humor:
Nurse: Dr. Kahahn, this patient is cyanotic, he's turning blue!"
- The encounter between Bolt when he's rambling after Crasswell cheated to make Bolt the loser and the J. Paul Getty bum:Bolt: I can get it back, I can get it all back. I just gotta make some calls, re-establish my line of credit, that's all I have to do, they'll take my calls. Why shouldn't they take my calls? I'm Goddard Bolt; I was the richest man in the world, the richest!
J. Paul Getty bum: Shut up!!
Bolt: Who are you?
J. Paul Getty: I'm J. Paul Getty. I was the richest man in the world. You don't see me ranting and raving about it, do you? No! I took my losses!
Bolt: What losses?
Getty bum: During the crash, the clash, the smash!
Bolt: Listen to me. You are not J. Paul Getty; you are a pathetic, broken-minded, little bum. In your mind you think you're J. Paul Getty but you're not. Whilst I on the other hand, am Goddard Bolt, a genuine financial giant.
Getty bum: So am I!Bolt [Bolt slaps Getty] : You're not!
Getty bum [Getty retaliates by slapping Bolt in the face]: I am!
Bolt: You're not!
Getty bum: I am!
Bolt: You're not!
Getty bum: I am!
Bolt: Wait, come with me.
Getty bum: Where are we going?
Bolt Over here, let's talk. Now look, let's be reasonable.
Getty bum: Okay.
Bolt: There's an enormous difference between us. Even though in your twisted mind, you think you're rich, you're really not. On the other hand, because of my serious understanding of the world of finance, I have amassed $6.4 billion dollars.
Getty Bum: And I have amassed $6.5 billion dollars.
[Another Stooge-like slapstick brawl ensues between Getty and Bolt]
- After Dr. Kahahn has just given Bolt at least three sedative injections and he goes into a coma:
Dr. Kahahn: This man's been over-medicated. Take him to I.C.U. immediately.
Nurse: Yes, doctor; give me a hand, please.
Dr. Kahahn: How does a thing like this happen?
- The encounter between Bolt when he's rambling after Crasswell cheated to make Bolt the loser and the J. Paul Getty bum:
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: While Bolt is originally in it for the money, he soon has a change of heart and decides to help the homeless people, and even marries Molly, whom he befriended while on the streets.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: The scene where Sailor's cremated ashes ended up on Fumes, Molly, and Pepto, was, according to Mel Brooks, based on a real-life incident that happened to Howard Morris (who played Sailor), when scattering his father's ashes.
- Poor Hungry: Mel Brooks' attempts to eat discarded junk food are constantly thwarted to comedic effect.
- Running Gag: In the crowded emergency room, the doctors have Bolt sedated several times:Dr. Kahahn: "Get this man 500 milligrams of dorazine immediately, he needs it!"
- Sanity Slippage: After Crasswell rigs the outcome so that Bolt loses the bet, Bolt finds himself moaning his losses and gets taken to the hospital, where the doctors keep injecting him with sedatives.
- There Is a God!: Parodied. Bolt thanks God for giving him strength after he survives thirty days impoverished, then adds "And I'm sorry I didn't believe in you when I was rich!"
- Title Drop: Bolt repeatedly moans this when he's in the hospital and his lawyers have sold out to throw the wager to Crasswell.
- Took a Level in Kindness: Part of Bolt’s Character Development.
- Visual Pun: When Bolt's crane takes a bite out of Crasswell's proposed development, the sign reads "Crass City".