A Life Less Ordinary
Screenplay : John Hodge
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Ewan McGregor (Robert), Cameron Diaz (Celine), Holly Hunter (O'Reilly), Delroy Lindo (Jackson), Ian Holm (Naville), Ian McNeice (Mayhew), Stanley Tucci (Elliot), Dan Hedaya (Gabriel)
"A Life Less Ordinary" premiered in theaters with heavy anticipation as the follow-up film by director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge, and actor Ewan McGregor, the team that brought the wildly entertaining "Trainspotting" (1995) to life. Unfortunately, the film was ransacked by critics and, worse, lost on audiences. Its love story of a kidnapping-gone-wrong mixed with heavenly angels and earthly black humor was either too bizarre, not bizarre enough, or just plain muddled.
Nevertheless, "A Life Less Ordinary" is a slightly better movie than it was made out to be, although it comes nowhere close to the astounding achievement of "Trainspotting," or even Boyle's freshman film, "Shallow Grave" (1994). Here, the filmmakers try to put a fresh, clever spin on what is essentially an old, tired story, and the result is a freaky grab-bag of humor, action, and surreal idiocy.
McGregor stars as Robert, an aspiring pulp novelist who works as a janitor at a huge, unnamed corporation run by a selfish, cruel millionaire mogul (Ian Holm). On the same day Robert is informed that he has been replaced by a robot, his girlfriend dumps him for an aerobics instructor. In a moment of sheer frustration, Robert bursts into Holm's office to complain about his unfair treatment. He is quickly swamped by security guards, and in a sequence reminiscent of "The Three Stooges," he manages to get one of their guns and escape by kidnapping the mogul's daughter, Celine (Cameron Diaz), who happens to be in the office.
The whole time we know that Robert and Celine are supposed to eventually fall in love. The movie opens in heaven (everything is white, how original) where the archangel Gabriel (Dan Hedaya in either the best or worst casting decision in years, depending on your view) is instructing two lesser angels, Jackson (Delroy Lindo) and O'Reilly (Holly Hunter) that God is upset about the divorce rate. Gabriel tells them that they must go to earth to ensure that Robert and Celine fall in love, or they will be exiled on earth permanently.
From here, it's not hard to see where the plot goes. Celine is not a passive kidnappee, and it isn't long before she's helping the befuddled Robert get a bigger ransom (she was offended that he would only ask for $500,000). Celine and her dad don't get along very well, and she sees Robert as a great opportunity to get back at him. Robert turns out to be more of a victim because he's simply too nice to be a kidnaper. He apologizes to everyone for everything, and his inability to assert himself is displayed in a hilarious sequence where he tries (unsuccessfully) to make a threatening ransom demand over the phone.
Through all this lunacy, McGregor and Diaz are the only actors who make it out alive. McGregor's Robert is an amusing and sympathetic character, while Diaz makes Celine into a believably frustrated rich-girl who has spent her whole life searching for a man who's not like her father. Ian Holm, who was so brilliant in "The Sweet Hereafter," is a boring caricature of wealthy insolence. Delroy Lindo and especially Holly Hunter are downright goofy as the angels; Hunter does some kind of weird and ineffectual combination of her performance in "Raising Arizona" and "Crash."
Some of this may be because Boyle doesn't put any tight restrictions on his direction; he seems willing to just go with the flow. The stylized cinematography by Brian Tufano ("Trainspotting," "Dreamscape") gives the film's assorted locations a wicked, cartoonish feel; the colors are exceptionally bright and glossy, as if everything was lit with one light too many. He has one great transition shot, from a scene in heaven to a sparkling blue swimming pool in the Hollywood hills.
In fact, if anything undermines "A Life Less Ordinary," it is the script by John Hodge, whose adaptation of "Trainspotting" was nominated for an Oscar. Here he doesn't seem to have a very clear-cut notion of what he wants, so the movie is uneven throughout.
For instance, he insists on including angels and divine intervention (the end of the movie is a literal deux ex machina), but he never establishes clear guidelines within which the angels must act. On earth, they appear to be completely human and can only operate within the same earthly confines as you or I, but in one sequence Holly Hunter's character is literally crushed between a falling pickup truck and a giant rock, and she comes away with only a broken arm. Plus, Hodge's ideas about intervention in the name of love are a bit screwy, since the angels do more harm than good.
But, of course, that may have been in the service of making what is essentially 45 minutes worth of material much longer . . .
©1998 James Kendrick