The Misunderstood: A Life Less Ordinary

The Misunderstood: A Life Less Ordinary

When I turned 13, my considerably more hip brother took me to see Trainspotting. It only ever played at a single independent theater in a sketchy part of town in Columbus, Ohio, so beyond the sex, drugs and foreign allure of the film there was also this extra slice of illicit thrill that went into my first of many times seeing the film. This was prior to the American re-release that included a new dialogue dub that was considerably more intelligible for an audience that wasn't at all familiar with Scottish dialect. As a consequence, I didn't really understand most of what was going on in the movie, only catching every third word or so. Despite the language barrier, I knew I was watching something special, a film that was plugged in to a lot of very new, very interesting cultural movements. I wasn't alone in this. Director Danny Boyle was quickly becoming a major force in film, having almost singlehandedly revived a global interest in British cinema with the stunning one-two punch of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. His great casts, appealing darkness and stellar soundtracks posited Boyle as a wunderkind in the flood of independent films that washed over the 1990's. So, when he got a big chunk of financing from 20th Century Fox to produce his next movie, everyone was surprised to find a thoroughly bizarre romantic comedy result. That film was A Life Less Ordinary, one of the biggest flops of 1997

A Life Less Ordinary once again paired Danny Boyle with his favorite lead actor, Ewan McGregor. That alone should have guaranteed success, but McGregor also acted opposite another popular performer, up-and-comer Cameron Diaz. The entire cast of the film is really an impressive collection of strong character actors, including Ian Holm, Stanley Tucci, Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo. But Boyle's script, which he composed alongside John Hodge, was just too weird to play to the blockbuster audiences its production and marketing demanded. I think this unfortunate mis-branding is what killed A Life Less Ordinary and not necessarily its innate strangeness. It's as big a mistake now as it has always been to try to fit an indie frame of mind into a big-budget setting. A Life Less Ordinary is far from perfect, but I wonder if its excesses could have been avoided if it hadn't been funded and hyped into too high a pay grade.

The premise of A Life Less Ordinary is that Robert (McGregor) is a janitor at a giant corporation whose life is stalled in a cruddy kind of complacency. The corporation's CEO, played by Ian Holm, is similarly unsatisfied with his spoiled daughter Selene's (Diaz) refusal to advance her station in the world. Meanwhile (and this is where it gets weird), an overworked bureaucrat in Heaven receives orders to rush one of his projects, the unification of two souls who are destined to love one another. Those two souls happen to belong to Robert and Selene. So, the angels conspire to force the two together by exigent circumstances.

As his life spirals out of control, Robert cracks and kidnaps Selene to hold for ransom against his boss, who replaced him with a robot. Hiding out in an abandoned ranch house, Robert is quickly manipulated by Selene into scamming her father out of a large sum of money, at which point the two will go their separate ways. Their plans are constantly disrupted by two desperate angels (Hunter and Lindo) who use insane tactics to foster the potential love between Robert and Selene.

This bizarre premise just scratches the surface of A Life Less Ordinary's box office poison. It sports a downright schizophrenic soundtrack, odd dialogue, an extended fantasy sequence and a mostly incomprehensible, symbolic ending. Taken as the next great step in the career of It Boy Danny Boyle, it's a complete disaster. Taken as a unique alternative to most romantic comedies, it's an amazing work of art. A Life Less Ordinary ought to be thought of in the same way as another contentious film starring Ewan McGregor, Down With Love. Both are summery, winking comedies that use a mix of high style and goofy concepts to escape the mediocrity of their genres. It's a fun film for people who enjoy a little magic and a healthy dose of weird.