A Life Less Ordinary (review)

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Road to Nowhere

Imagine if David Lynch had directed It Happened One Night. Or if Nora Ephron had written Natural Born Killers. That sorta begins to explain A Life Less Ordinary.

Is this a good film? I’m not sure. It’s… bizarre. And not entirely in a good way. A romantic comedy about kidnapping with angels as bounty hunters. I bet it sounded just as weird on paper as it looks onscreen. Then again, any movie with Ewan McGregor can’t be all bad.
Robert (McGregor, from The Phantom Menace and Nightwatch) is the kind of guy who tends to get dragged along in life’s wake. A failed author of “trash novels,” he’s also a failure as a janitor — he’s being replaced, oh the ignominy, by a robot. He’s further unmanned when his girlfriend leaves him for another guy. Pushed finally to the edge, he takes matters into his own hand and storms into the office of the big cheese, Mr. Naville (Ian Holm, from The Fifth Element and The Sweet Hereafter), who fired him, demanding his job back.

Serenely watching this scene is Naville’s daughter, Celine (Cameron Diaz, from There’s Something About Mary and My Best Friend’s Wedding), a spoiled, reckless brat who likes to play William Tell with an apple, a gun, and her butler (Ian McNeice, from Horatio Hornblower: The Fire Ship). She arranges things, off the cuff, so that befuddled and bewildered Robert has no choice but to kidnap her at gunpoint from her father’s office.

Robert and Celine hit the road from Los Angeles into the mountain roads and plains of the American West, pursued by — and this is where A Life Less Ordinary really starts veering off into strangeness — a pair of angels (Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo) who, as a cover for their heavenly mission to unite Robert and Celine in “eternal bliss,” are working as hired guns for Naville to rescue her and kill him.

As a romantic comedy, the film tends to confound the expectations and conventions of the genre, though not always successfully. What does work is the reversal of typical gender roles: Even though Robert’s ostensibly the kidnapper, Celine’s always in control, and she’s much more ruthless and daring than he as she masterminds a scheme to bilk her father out of millions. Holed up in an abandoned mountain cabin, he cheerfully cooks for her like they’re on their honeymoon, and is crushed when she only glares at him in return. He’s a basically nice guy caught up in circumstances that spiraled beyond his control; she is in her glory, conniving and plotting and manipulating all around her with calculated sweetness.

Life made me laugh out loud at several points, which isn’t an easy thing to do. McGregor and Diaz each have a flair for comedy that works in synergy to make funny scenes that mightn’t have been otherwise. Confronted at their cabin by a Unabomber-type neighbor (Maury Chaykin, from Entrapment and The Mask of Zorro), for example, Celine makes up an impromptu story about how Robert is a world-famous rock star, and the two of them are just looking for a little privacy, so please don’t tell anyone they’re there. Listening to this tale, the expression on McGregor’s face shifts from surprise to terror to coolness as he begins to play along, in a way that’s simply hilarious. (An unintentionally funny moment comes when Diaz urges the future Jedi Knight to “go to your dark side.”)

I’ve never been a particular fan of Diaz’s, more because of my sheer annoyance at the characters she’s played than any lack of talent on her part, but Life does show her off as a gifted comic actor. (It is distressing to note, however, that as with so many female movie stars, the bigger she’s gets, the smaller she gets: Diaz is noticeably much thinner only a year later in There’s Something About Mary. Why is near anorexia a prerequisite in women for being an A-list movie star?) McGregor can do no wrong, as far as I’m concerned, and displays two unexpected talents here when he’s forced to actually be the world-famous rock star: He can sing and dance pretty well.

Absurd by both meanings of the word, A Life Less Ordinary is both surreal and ridiculous, the strangest little film I’ve seen in a while.

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