Case File #28: A Life Less Ordinary
More My Year Of Flops
1997's A Life Less Ordinary is the perfect example of a movie that lived and died by hype. In theory at least the film was supposed to be Pulp Fiction to Trainspotting's Resevoir Dogs: a seismic pop culture event that would catapult a cult filmmaker squarely and permanently into the mainstream. Like Resevoir Dogs, Trainspotting won over critics, hipsters and the intelligentsia and made its creators' cult heroes/minor cultural deities without wracking up particularly strong number at the box-office
A Life Less Ordinary was supposed to herald yet another glorious British invasion. It was designed to be a kick-ass guy movie like Trainspotting but with a romantic twist that'd bring in the ladies. The ne'er do wells that made Trainspotting were coming for our daughters and their disposable income and bringing hunky Ewan McGregor along for back up. In the wake of Trainspotting's international success everyone wanted a bit of that Danny Boyle feeling and the people backing A Life Less Ordinary understandably figured Boyle himself must have it in spades.
Then the film came out and the deafening roar of publicity and anticipation that greeted it gave way to stunned silence. The hype machine quietly slunk away in embarrassment and decided to shine its floodlights on the next big thing that'd change pop culture forever. Upon closer examination it appeared that maybe Cameron Diaz wasn't the second coming of Audrey Hepburn or Lucille Ball after all. Maybe she was just another attractive actress utterly lost in the wrong role.
A Life Less Ordinary's quick death at the box-office sent Boyle's previously blessed career rocketing in the wrong direction. The Beach proved an even bigger bomb than A Life Less Ordinary and Boyle's career bottomed out with the painful, amateurish 2001 digital-video vacuum-themed sex comedy Vacuuming Completely Nude In Paradise. Then there was Boyle and longtime screenwriter John Hodge's Alien Love Triangle, one-third of an aborted anthology film that would have paired the duo's short film with projects that eventually became Mimic and The Impostor
Boyle made a nice comeback with 28 Days Later and Millions but after a string of embarrassing failures he had an awful lot to bounce back from. Back in the mid-90s however America and his benefactors over at Channel 4 were more than willing to give this world-conquering wunderkind all the space in the world to screw up spectacularly. That's exactly what he did.
A Life Less Ordinary was supposed to radically reinvent the romantic comedy with its high-energy mash-up of Trainspotting dark comedy and It Happened One Night screwball charm. But the film's whimsy lands with a deadening thud and the miscalculations stretch from an opening that recounts the story of Adam and Eve as a Tarantino-style monologue to an end-credit sequence that transforms the heroes into grotesque claymation blobs
In between lies roughly one scene that works–a dizzy musical sequence where stars Ewan McGregor and Diaz bond while performing an enthusiastic version of "Beyond The Sea"–and roughly twenty five that don't. MacGregor stars here as an underemployed dreamer biding his time toiling as a janitor while working on a paperback novel about the crime-fighting adventures of Marilyn Monroe and JFK's love child. Then one day he's replaced by a robot at work and in a fit of anger accidentally ends up kidnapping spoiled rich girl Cameron Diaz.
Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter co-star as angels sent to earth to bring McGregor and Diaz together by any means necessary, a process that entails everything from Lindo ghost-writing a love poem to Diaz to re-kidnapping Diaz after she escapes McGregor's half-assed clutches.
Romantic comedies are gimmicky and convoluted enough without the leads literally being pushed together by the Lord's messengers. In a film full of miscalculations and gambles that backfire spectacularly introducing the machinations of heaven into a breezy romantic comedy represents the film's central misfire though Hunter certainly shoulders much of the blame for a showy, distracting performance bad enough to get her Oscar retroactively revoked.
The filmmakers never quite get around to explaining why the forces of heaven are so intent on playing matchmaker between a boyish loser of negligible charm and a shrill, spoiled brat who has apparently never worked a day in her life and whines insouciantly about the horror of no longer possessing unlimited credit. In one of the film's most jarring missteps Diaz holds up a bank and threatens to shoot a little girl in the head. The filmmakers seem to think audiences will already be so enamored with gun-nut Diaz they'll view her threat as the lovably impulsive act of an incorrigible free spirit. Instead it just seems ugly, wrong and borderline evil.
There is a core of sincere, utterly unironic adolescent romance at the center of A Life Less Ordinary that's both brave and noble and deeply embarrassing. If the film were the lovelorn middle-schooler it often resembles it'd have fluttering little cartoon hearts and cupids and roses all over its Trapper Keeper.
I remember reading somewhere that McGregor was reportedly hammered throughout many of his early performances. For his sake I hope that was the case here as well. Nobody should have to act in A Life Less Ordinary sober. For that matter nobody should have to sit through this tone-deaf boondoggle in a state of perfect sobriety either.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?:Fiasco