' ' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: A Life Less Ordinary

Friday, May 15, 2009

My Great Movies: A Life Less Ordinary

In the wake of Danny Boyle earning the Best Director Oscar for "Slumdog Millionaire" I returned to what I consider his singular masterpiece, and, no, I'm not talking about "Trainspotting". Upon its release in 1997 "A Life Less Ordinary" was a critical and commercial bomb. The most common criticism typically involved the word "mess". The esteemed Roger Ebert in a decidedly non-plus review wrote "the plot's a mess." Owen Gleiberman termed the film a "fractious mess." Salon's Stephanie Zacharek called it "excessive, passionate and messy." It is a description I do not dispute for simply summarizing this movie as being about two star-crossed lovers on the lam would not be doing it justice. It is, after all, a mess, which is precisely its prevaling theme.

The film opens in heaven, washed in white, minus the harps and wings, functioning as a police station and showing that apparently it takes a lot of manpower to keep eternal paradise humming, where the angel Gabriel (Dan Hedaya) assigns two of his fellow messengers of God, Jackson and O'Riley (Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter), down to earth where they are to ensure that hapless janitor Robert (Ewan McGregor), whose single dream is to write the Great American Trash Novel, and Celine (Cameron Diaz), the spoiled daughter of Robert's boss (Ian Holm) who has never worked a day in her life, fall in love. If not, the angels don't come back.

They waste nary a moment getting to work as Robert is swiftly fired, dumped by his girlfriend and evicted. In a moment of rage, and utter clueslessness, Robert storms the office of his former boss just as Celine happens to be meeting with him since he is upset that she has gone and shot her potential fiance (Stanley Tucci) in the head (don't ask). He explains her punishment will be "to go to work".

Thus, when Robert takes Celine as his hostage at a mountainside hideway after his best efforts to reclaim his job fail spectacularly and it quickly becomes clear he has no idea what he is doing, she chooses to offer her expertise on the matter, what when you consider she was kidnapped previously at age twelve.

Once the initial ransom demand is made the angels offer their services to Celine's father as bounty hunters which, of course, allows them to further their plight to guarantee the two fall head over heels. Gunfire erupts, banks are robbed, credit cards are turned off ("only the exceptionally rich could know how I feel"), alter egos are assumed, karaoke is sung, and, damn, if this mismatched guy & girl don't start to feel a flicker of love.

Still, though, I don't feel anything I've said has even begun to ready you for the bounty of insanity offered up in this film or the way Boyle delightfully revels in the smallest of flourishes - the rain slicker that adorns Lindo's fedora in a late scene, Hunter (who, by the way, I think is fabulous in this movie - a great actress getting to cut loose) spitting chaw, a dazzling string of saliva that connects Robert and Celine in the moment after their first kiss which was no doubt unintended by Boyle, thereby lending to the theme of divine intervention, or the look on McGregor's face when Diaz sternly declares "go to your dark side."

He has no dark side. He may be the first kidnapper without one. Sure, he puts a gun to her head (which pairs with a later scene when she puts a gun to his head) but he covers her in a blanket when he ties her up and cooks her dinner. His feelings are genuinely hurt when she accuses him of being "the worst kidnapper I've ever met." He may be decent and compassionate but he's also neurotic and self-doubting and does not particularly trust the decisions he is making as he goes along but also does not have the courage to question them. His actions may get bolder but, in the end, he still has the same luckless heart. Diaz, on the other hand, relishes playing the bad girl and this early turn in her ouvre seems to suggest she is better at being a, shall we say, devil-may-care bitch as opposed to the more generic romantic lead.

The movie, however, does not merely limit itself to its two leads, forcing its supporting characters to exist solely in the orbit around Robert and Celine. They are themselves, distinctly, and all have their own stories to tell.

The esteemed Roger Ebert once wrote about the glories of "supporting performances from character actors who come onstage, sing an aria, and leave." This quality is found in abundance in "A Life Less Ordinary". Whether it's Ian Holm's soliloquy near the start to the wonders of money ("how it flows relentlessly back towards he who owns it") or Delroy Lindo's tale of the love of his life ("sweet Eliza Gray....her father was a colonel") or Maury Chakin turning up briefly as a suspicious neighbor or, best of all, Tony Shalhoub's monologue near the end that is so grand, so perfect, I will reveal nary a word and allow you to discover (or re-discover) it on your own.

Perhaps the viewer may feel his or herself questioning the angels' methods. Critic Owen Gleiberman, also untaken with the film, wrote: "The plot, with its interlocking contrivances, is like a machine that keeps trapping the actors in its gears." Maybe, but during the course of a relationship don't you occasionally feel like interlocking contrivances keep getting you stuck in its gears? Don't you sometimes wish the storyline with your significant other was as obvious as a trash novel about Nazi gold hidden underneath the embassy? Don't you often feel like a mysterious force, maybe a force from above, is guiding you but doing so without the help of a well thought-out or clear-cut plan?

A telling moment occurs when Lindo's angel sits off to the side watching as Robert digs his own grave (again, don't ask), ruminating on the earthly state, and says, "The truth is, I don't think even He knows what's going on down here." We see heaven, yes, but we don't see God. His presence is hinted at only once on the other end of a phone call, allowing Dan Hedaya to bark the immortal line, "This is Gabriel. Get me God." It's a celestial version of corporate America, the Lord delegating important responsibilities to middle management which may be ill equipped to deal with certain situations. Maybe times have changed and their old methods need a bit of re-structuring.

"I remember the good old days," says Lindo's angel at another point. "All you had to do was introduce a man and a woman. Nature did the rest. Doesn't work like that anymore. It's all gone to s---." Meet Cutes aren't so simple anymore. Nothing is.

I have always wondered if the film might have done better to conclude a scene earlier. The end has never made much sense to me. It's confusing, a bit of a....mess. But then life's something of a mess, too. A big, steaming mess, and not just because whatever divine order there is to the universe so often feels out of whack. No, sometimes it's a mess because we - meaning, us - make things too damn difficult. Too many questions, too many reservations, too many doubts, too many fears, on and on, and the moments when the world does present us precisely what we want on a silver platter we still somehow find a way to muck it all up which is why if we all have a guardian angel, and I prefer to think this is true, there is no doubt in my mind he or she often looks at us from above and, like Holly Hunter, bellows, exasperated, "Human f---ing beings! What do you have to do?!" I wish I knew.


Wretched Genius said...

1. Beautiful line delivery by McGregor: "I'm doing my best here under really difficult circumstances, and it's not made any easier by you criticizing everything I do."

2. A scene was filmed with God, but cut from the film because it was distracting and just didn't work. Boyle swears that the footage really does exist. If there is any justice in the world and Life gets a Special Edition release, me may just get the chance to see it. And here's why we want to:

God is played by Sean Connery.

3. Can I get an "Amen!" for an all-claymation epilogue?

Nick Prigge said...

That would be an awesome scene to see. As long as it's on its own. It was correct to keep God offscreen.

As for the claymation epilogue, well, I didn't care for it. Not because of the epilogue itself but just because I'm not really a fan of any epilogues no matter how well they're done. If you can't fit in the actual movie, leave it out. But that's just me.

To pair with your McGregor line I should also mention that he has the greatest post-coital line in movie history. No arguments.