Friday October 24, 1997

     Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. And it might turn out to be "A Life Less Ordinary."
     The latest effort from the crew that made "Trainspotting" so exciting--writer John Hodge, director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and star Ewan McGregor--"A Life Less Ordinary" sounds like everything audiences weary of business-as-usual major studio romances would be happy to embrace.
     After all, this film has charismatic stars and a non-cookie-cutter script whose fondness for the unexpected means it didn't go anywhere near development hell. But the result is no more than a forced fable, a self-consciously smarty-pants concoction that is too clever by half and too pleased with itself in the bargain.
     That's even more of a shame because the chemistry between McGregor and co-star Cameron Diaz is especially powerful and periodically threatens to rescue the movie all by itself. It can't, but even so, Diaz's gift for romantic comedy, coming after her success in "My Best Friend's Wedding," should place her in the "next Julia Roberts-new Sandra Bullock" slot Hollywood is always eager to fill.
     Producer Macdonald is the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, the longtime partner of British director Michael Powell, and, like that pair's David Niven-starring "A Stairway to Heaven"/"A Matter of Life and Death," "A Life Less Ordinary" revolves around heaven's influence on earthly romance.
     The film opens in a bleached-out, whiter-than-white hereafter where Gabriel (Dan Hedaya) functions as a chief of police. He tells two of his veteran detective-angels, O'Reilly (Holly Hunter) and Jackson (Delroy Lindo), that the deity is peeved at how dysfunctional modern relationships have proved to be, how few couples manage to stay "bonded in eternal harmony." Their assignment is to bring two people together and, as an extra incentive, if they don't succeed they won't be allowed back through the gates of eternity.
     It's an especially tough assignment that O'Reilly and Jackson are given. The man and woman they have to manipulate into falling in love are so disparate in every way (except, as the casting ensures, in star quality) that in the ordinary course of events they would never even meet.
     Celine (Diaz) is the classic bored little rich girl with a life that's like an upscale perfume ad. She takes time off from swimming in a pool big enough to float the Titanic only to shoot apples off the head of the trusty butler employed by her tycoon father, Naville (Ian Holm).
     *
     Robert (McGregor), on the other hand, is one of Naville's lowliest employees, a janitor manque so inconsequential he can be replaced by a robot. As an unambitious, naive, would-be trash novelist, he is also dropped in favor of an aerobics instructor by a girlfriend who insists, "I want a man, not a dreamer."
     Determined to have his say about his lost job, Robert bursts into Naville's office while the great man is chatting with Celine, and ends up, more by accident than on purpose, kidnapping the tycoon's daughter and spiriting her away to a remote cabin he somehow stumbles upon.
     Decisive action is not Robert's strength, but the avaricious Celine, who's been kidnapped before, soon swings into action, masterminding a demand for ransom and in general giving the hapless Robert fits. Not very promising material for an eternal romance, but with expulsion from heaven as the alternative, O'Reilly and Jackson are not easily deterred.
     Reduced to a bare outline, "A Life Less Ordinary" sounds promising, and in fact the film sporadically amuses with lines like Robert's complaint to Celine, "That's all I am to you, the latest kidnapper, a lifestyle accessory."
     But though it wears its arbitrariness proudly, there is simply too much over-elaborate silliness masquerading as wit here, not to mention a grating self-congratulatory tone. The supporting actors are similarly all over the place, especially the angels, with the usually unflappable Lindo looking lost and Hunter trying on a succession of accents as if they were outfits by Prada. "A Life Less Ordinary" is so intent on being a film out of the ordinary that it doesn't notice how unsatisfying it's become.
     Still, there are Diaz and McGregor to enjoy, and that is no small thing. She is a former model without an extensive acting background before her debut in "The Mask," but she excels within her range, and she is every bit the sparkling equal of the trained, experienced McGregor, who is virtuoso enough to have appeared in the very different "Trainspotting," "Emma" and "The Pillow Book," all in the same year. Unlikely as it sounds, these two make a swell match on screen. At least heaven got that much right.


A Life Less Ordinary, 1997. R, for violence and language. A Figment production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Danny Boyle. Producer Andrew Macdonald. Screenplay John Hodge. Cinematographer Brian Tufano. Editor Masahiro Hirakubo. Costumes Rachael Fleming. Music supervisor Randall Poster. Production design Kave Quinn. Art director Tracey Lang Gallacher. Set decorator Marcia Calosio. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. Ewan McGregor as Robert. Cameron Diaz as Celine. Holly Hunter as O'Reilly. Delroy Lindo as Jackson. Ian Holm as Naville.