Published October 1, 1997
Just imagine what you would get if the director of Trainspotting turned his hand to romantic comedy and, sure enough, that’s pretty much what you get with Danny Boyle’s A Life Less Ordinary. As with Trainspotting and their earlier hit, Shallow Grave, Boyle is joined by Andrew Macdonald (producer) and John Hodge (writer), but by now their peculiar blend of magic realism, street cynicism and playfully postmodern metaphysics would be wearing little thin even if they did not also suffer from the usual problem of successful young filmmakers, which is self-indulgence— the most common consequence of which is the disappearance of any sense of artistic (and sometimes financial too) economy. The artist throws in every good idea he has ever had, and the cumulative effect is a very bad idea indeed.
Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter play a couple of street-wise angels called Jackson and O’Reilly, employed by God Inc whose c.e.o., Gabriel (Dan Hedaya), sends them on a mission to earth. Referring darkly to “pressure from above” in the face of rampant divorce “for men and women to be united in eternal bliss,” Gabriel tells them bring together in love a completely unlikely couple. This mission is subject to God’s “new incentive scheme” which is “You do it or you don’t come back.” Liberatum mani says Gabriel. “It’s out of my hands.”
Compared to the unlikelihood of Mr Lindo and Miss Hunter, the couple of Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz hardly looks unlikely at all, but the film’s authors have in their nudging, winking postmodern way done what they could to exaggerate the differences between the two. Mr McGregor plays Robert, a janitor and would-be novelist who is fired from his job with the giant Naville Corporation and replaced by a robot. He confronts his boss (Ian Holm) just as the latter is having a painful interview with his rebellious daughter, Celine (Miss Diaz), and, on the spur of the moment, Robert takes her hostage. So the film becomes another kidnapper-hostage romance like last month’s Excess Baggage. Boyle and Co have done a better job with the theme, but it is still pure Hollywood.
Not that that matters to them, of course. Celine tells Robert she has been kidnapped once before, so she is able to give him, hopelessly inept as he is, some pointers. This sets up most of the rest of the jokes in the picture. “How am I doing?” he asks her, eager to please. Almost always he is doing very badly, but she, obviously a take-charge kind of gal, humors him as she leads him around by the nose. And he is content to be led, and to take up the feminine role in their developing relationship. “That’s all I am to you,” he whines, for all the world like a pouty wife. “The latest kidnapper! A lifestyle accessory. You criticize everything I do!”
The angels appear periodically, but it is never clear what they are doing, or why their various, mostly unsuccessful, schemes for bringing Robert and Celine together should require angelic intelligence or power. They become an irrelevance, an extra added attraction in a film that doesn’t even bother to try to hold itself together as a single artistic whole. The angels are like the fantasy of romantic love which ends the picture: an unashamed acknowledgement of cinematic artifice and fakery. But it is the kind of fakery we like so (the attitude seems to be) why not?
Interestingly, however, the filmmakers include something that sounds a lot more like their real opinion in a brief cameo turn by Tony Shalhoub as Al, the proprietor of the diner where Robert goes to work, mopping the floor, during the splitup with Celine which we know must precede their final reunion. When Celine comes looking for him, he spurns her, telling Al: “She’s not my type.”
“Your type!” says Al scornfully. “Look at you! You’re nothing. You’re broke, on the run from the law and cleaning the floor in a crumby diner and she’s rich and smart and beautiful. The question is not likely to arise in this world—or, indeed the next. She will be going to some heaven for glamorous p**** and you will be cleaning the floor of a diner in hell.”
Of course, if they’d said what they really thought about their hyper-romantic premiss, they wouldn’t have been able to sell many tickets.