“It’s a romance. The girl meets the guy. They fall in love. It’s bullshit.”
— Celine Naville (Cameron Diaz) in A Life Less Ordinary

Anyone planning to watch A Life Less Ordinary should be warned that a serious suspension of disbelief is called for. And not just in the deux ex machina department — which is a quite literal mechanic of plot advancement in this little getaway romance — but in the transitions from scene to scene. Why are two lovers on the lam driving aimlessly after a botched ransom scheme? Why are two angels whose mission is to help them also shooting at them? And why does an all-powerful deity in control of the universe need a cosmic bureaucracy to carry out his bidding?

Well, the script seems to huff at us, have you got any better ideas? Just roll with it.

It’s really too bad that the movie doesn’t congeal, because on paper, Danny Boyle’s follow-up feature to Trainspotting, his 1996 breakthrough, could be heavenly fun, despite its inherent preciousness. But the script is a mess, presumably because the filmmakers were chasing a manic, screwball tone that leaves the audience confused. Making matters worse is an exasperatingly affected style that ultimately gets in the way of itself. The film’s sugar-rush sentiment is evident in the colorful, where’s-the-party-at shirt that Ewan McGregor never takes off.

McGregor plays Robert Lewis, a janitor with dreams of writing a loopy trash novel about the daughter of Marilyn Monroe and J.F.K. His soul mate is a wealthy spitfire named Celine Naville, played somewhat flatly by Cameron Diaz. Neither is content with their lot in life, and when Robert loses his job and girlfriend on the same day, he goes to the head of the corporation he worked for to have a meltdown. He ends up threatening the CEO and taking his daughter (Celine) as hostage.

But Celine’s poolside life is boring, and she doesn’t feel threatened by the softhearted Robert (despite telling us that she was kidnapped as a teen, and had several pints of blood extracted and sent to her father as a threat; you’d think this would traumatize a person). In fact, she goes about the rather implausible business of coaching Robert in Hostage Taking 101, with both planning to run off with the ransom together, though for what purpose or why is never clear.

Meanwhile, in an eggshell-white, police precinct office in the sky, angels conspire to bring them together. The pair assigned to ensure Robert and Celine fall in love have left a string of divorces in their wake, and are told to produce a happy romance — or else. Played by Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo, they’re an odd couple whose exchanges are probably the funniest and most interesting element in the film.

Needless to say, there’s a mess of motivations here. It’s not clear what Robert and Celine see in each other, and though the film tells us they’re both “dreamers,” neither seems to have any dreams beyond Robert’s trash novel. The angels, who also serve as otherworldly bounty hunters, are hired by Celine’s father to bring her back. Why do they spend long action sequences trying to kill them, then? Presumably to build a bond between these star-crossed lovers. If that’s their strategy, then it’s clear why God put these cherubim on probation.

It might not be an intuitive comparison, but the film wants to be a kind of mirror opposite to Natural Born Killers. Both are about a pair of misfits who tear off down dusty highways in search of just enough cash to afford a new adventure. Obviously, Natural Born Killers takes a much darker tact, but both are chiefly remembered for dazzling the viewer with impressionistic sequences. Also in both cases, it’s clear the filmmakers got carried away with the style rather than the substance.

In A Life Less Ordinary, there’s a musical number, a CGI-beating heart, and Dan Hedaya, as the archangel Gabriel, trying to get God on the phone in the name of True Love. There are a slew of blink-and-you-miss-them cameos (including Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub and Timothy Olyphant). There’s ultimately too much of everything, and not enough space to breathe.

If you catch it late at night and you’re blinkered, you’ll probably find a few genuine chuckles. But mostly you’ll be exhausted, the way ingesting a pound of Valentine’s Day candy can leave you with pounding temples, a bad sugar-crash and wondering why we always hurt the ones we love with romantic sap.

Andrew Good is a film critic and writer living in San Diego.

Comments (1)

On March 9, 2013 at 3:11 PM, Judy Phillips wrote...

Andrew my son…. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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