After their accelerated rise with “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting,” the Brit trio of helmer Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and writer John Hodge hit some major speed bumps with “A Life Less Ordinary.” This offbeat comedy-romancer centered on a clumsy kidnapper and his ambitious female victim is a pleasant enough ride in parts, but has too many half-realized ideas in the script to satisfy at any emotional level, and fails to make a virtue of its mixed British-American cast. Given the built-up curiosity riding on the film after the runaway success of “Trainspotting,” pic looks likely to open with good numbers (and easily recoup its $ 12 million budget worldwide), but a more ordinary B.O. life is signaled in the long run.
After the highly stylized earlier films, which married visual invention to strong, dialogue-driven scripts, Boyle & Co. faced the daunting task of fulfilling expectations raised by the first two pics while managing a gentle course correction toward stylistic pastures more fertile in the long term. The film’s opening reel, which has a designed but not over-the-top feel, raises hopes they’ve succeeded, but a feeling thereafter grows of the filmmakers covering all their bases rather than confidently striking out in a fresh direction. Part kooky romance, part screwball comedy, part quirky fantasy and part Roadrunner cartoon, this is a movie that has everything except an involving storyline and characters.
In a clear nod to the British classic “Stairway to Heaven” (co-directed, coincidentally, by Macdonald’s grandfather, Emeric Pressburger), the picture kicks off in an overexposed, all-white heaven with an almost ’60s feel, visualized in this case as a U.S. police precinct where Chief Gabriel (Dan Hedaya), under pressure from the Man Above to “unite men and women,” dispatches angels O’Reilly (Holly Hunter) and Jackson (Delroy Lindo) to bring together two earthlings.
Their targets couldn’t be more dissimilar: Celine (Cameron Diaz) is a pampered businessman’s daughter, while Robert (Ewan McGregor) is a young Scot who works as a janitor in her dad’s corporation and dreams of writing a bestselling trash novel about Marilyn Monroe and JFK’s love child.
When Robert, in rapid succession, is pink-slipped, dumped by his girlfriend (K.K. Dodds) and thrown out of his lodgings, he storms into the office of Celine’s dad, the ruthless Naville (Ian Holm), and in a confused melee ends up shooting him in the leg and kidnapping Celine at gunpoint.
The twist is that Celine hates her father and, quickly realizing Robert is no real threat, schools the klutzy Scot in bargaining techniques to extract a major amount of green and gain her freedom. In one of the script’s curious developments, O’Reilly and Lindo persuade Naville to hire them (why?) to track down the duo. This leads to various antics as the money handover is bungled, Celine robs a bank when she finds her father has canceled her credit card, and Naville and his henchman (Ian McNeice) turn up to take matters into their own hands.
There’s no shortage of ideas in Hodge’s busy script, but less would have translated into more — and would have helped the movie find a consistent tone. Hunter and Lindo’s characters raise plenty of opportunities for knockabout comedy and cartoony action — with Hunter doing a way-out Walter Brennan impersonation, and later turning into a kind of female Terminator — but they could just as easily have been eliminated from the script without any loss to the plot.
Another idea that only fitfully works is that of playing the story as a ’90s screwball comedy, with the two mismatched leads thrown together by circumstances not of their making. Some scenes are genuinely funny, but in general the film’s tempo and Hodge’s dialogue are neither brisk enough nor full of sufficiently sharp one-liners to realize this ambition.
Fact is, the humor is basically very British in tone (Hodge originally intended to set the story in the U.K. and France), and often sounds more natural in McGregor’s mouth than in Diaz’s. Of the American players, only Tony Shalhoub, in a bit as a barman friend of Robert’s, catches the comic, faux-literary tone. Almost as good is Stanley Tucci, as one of Celine’s suitors, but his brief role is more a plot device than a properly integrated character.
As the naive Scottish dreamer adrift in America’s wide-open spaces, McGregor is very good, with boyish appeal to spare. The weakness in this particular equation is Diaz, who, though very cute in her Versace duds, never unbends sufficiently to make their screen chemistry catch fire.
Working with their regular team of lenser Brian Tufano, editor Masahiro Hirakubo, production designer Kave Quinn and costume designer Rachael Fleming, Boyle & Co. have created a movie that fully exploits the Utah locations and, with a few exceptions, goes for a visually aware but not surreal look. High points include Diaz’s stunning poolside intro and Tufano’s capturing of the region’s multicolored fall flora; low point is the pic’s end titles, which throw in a windowboxed coda featuring Hunter and Lindo, and then an animated sequence, which, after 100 minutes, are several gildings of the lily too many.
At base, “A Life Less Ordinary” offers some moments of real fun and a few of genuine inspiration. But the simple, and potentially affecting, comedy-romance lying at its heart rarely gets a chance to stand tall amid the crossfire of mismatched ideas.