Wednesday, October 29, 1997

A Life Less Ordinary

Posted By on Wed, Oct 29, 1997 at 12:00 AM

Perhaps taking their title to heart, the cheeky creative team behind Shallow Grave and Trainspotting have made sure their latest effort is anything but ordinary. Wildly inventive, woefully derivative, sure-footed yet clumsy, A Life Less Ordinary manages to be both infuriating and enchanting.

The trio behind this oddball trilogy -- director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew MacDonald -- readily admit that A Life Less Ordinary borrows heavily from two sublime films: Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934) and A Matter of Life and Death, also known as Stairway to Heaven (1946), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (MacDonald's grandfather).

While intending to be a hyped-up homage to these films and their loopy love stories, A Life Less Ordinary doesn't capture the charm of the former or the deeply felt emotions of the latter. In fact, even as the filmmakers jack up the action in their screwy screwball comedy, forcing characters to risk life and limb for each other, nothing ever feels like it's really at stake.

This is romantic comedy as a Road Runner cartoon (full of relentless chase scenes and violent injuries played for comic effect), and A Life Less Ordinary only begins to make some sense after any expectations of realism have been tossed aside.

How else explain the only-in-the-movies chain of events that leads Robert (Ewan McGregor), a sad-sack janitor at a generic corporation, to kidnap Celine (Cameron Diaz), the head honcho's daughter?

Or the two stylish angels, O'Reilly (Holly Hunter) and Jackson (Delroy Lindo) who have been dispatched to bring this unlikely but "fated" couple together because God is fed up with men and women splitting up instead of being "bonded in eternal bliss"?

It's hooey, plain and simple. But that's not to say that a silly plot can't encompass some wonderful scenes and terrific performances.

Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz gleefully invert gender roles (Robert reads a romance novel while Celine chops wood) as well as character expectations. The kidnapper here turns out to be an eager-to-please softie while the victim has a steely demeanor and more-than-passing knowledge of cruelty and manipulation.

When karaoke night at a country-and-western bar effortlessly segues into a full-out musical number of "Beyond the Sea," A Life Less Ordinary demonstrates a real flair for off-kilter storytelling.

But screenwriter Hodge has concocted one anticlimax after another, diffusing any real interest in the characters' fates early on.

Director Boyle utilizes his now-familiar bag of tricks (extreme camera angles and weird juxtapositions) particularly well in two distinct contexts -- the natural beauty of Utah in autumn and a blazingly white workaday heaven -- but has forgotten to provide the film with any cohesion at all.

As a go-for-broke mishmash of different styles and sensibilities (an oil-and-water mix of British and American humor, wiseass and whimsy), A Life Less Ordinary is an invigorating jolt of irreverent filmmaking and a meandering mess.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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