A Life Less Ordinary

Stephanie Zacharek reviews 'A Life Less Ordinary,' directed by Danny Boyle and starring Ewan McGregor, Cameron Diaz and Holly Hunter


Stephanie Zacharek
October 24, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

GLORIOUSLY EXCESSIVE, PASSIONATE and messy, "A Life Less Ordinary" is the kind of picture that's becoming more and more of a rarity in the landscape of American movies: a love story with a hard-on. If Hollywood is giving the public what it really wants -- and I don't believe it is -- then we're a nation of moviegoers who like our action movies hard and our love stories soft, with no in-between. And that's a drag -- because what is love, if not essentially a blood sport?

"A Life Less Ordinary" is a quintessentially American romance -- a movie with lots of action, gunplay, general mayhem and plenty of wide-open spaces, but also with an intimacy between its two central characters (a boy and a girl, naturally) that seems to infuse, like perfume, the very air they breathe. These are lovers who are willing to take a bullet for each other: You can't get much harder than that.

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This very Hollywood movie has been made by a bunch of temporarily transplanted Scots: director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald were the brains and the heart behind "Trainspotting." If you've ever given directions to a tourist in your own hometown -- say, pointed the way to a historic building that you pass daily but haven't given a thought to in years -- you understand how sometimes it takes an outsider to unwrap the magic that surrounds you every day. "A Life Less Ordinary" is a movie made by "tourists" in the best sense of the word: Boyle, Hodge and Macdonald share the impulse (if not the poetry) of the directors of the French New Wave, who held up a mirror to the American mythos of guns, romance and Coca-Cola so we could see its beauty anew ourselves.

And if that's just a fancy way of saying that Boyle and his team recombine clichis in a new way, it helps to remember that some of the best things in life are combinations of ordinary things: sand and surf, hydrogen and oxygen, vodka and tonic. Boyle certainly isn't in the same league as the New Wave directors -- his approach is more manic, more driven by pop culture's slickness and energy than its poignancy -- but his love for the classic conventions of American movies is never in doubt. In fact, "A Life Less Ordinary" teems with it -- it's a show of bravado, a challenge to young American filmmakers who make flashier, fancier movies that aren't nearly as vital.

If Boyle literally does open his picture by introducing us to a girl and a gun -- when we first meet Cameron Diaz as Celine, she's coolly setting up to shoot an apple clean off the head of one of her servants -- it's only the first of his stylish matchups. Boyle pairs oddball little details the way he pairs off unlikely lovers: angels who talk tough and pack iron; a black leather jacket worn with a kilt; a drab karaoke bar that doubles as a dazzling, movie-dream dance floor; a silly, tossed-off line of dialogue dovetailing with one that stops you cold. It's easy, Boyle seems to be saying, to go through life thinking you know what to expect, but it's never wise -- and it's never fun.

"A Life Less Ordinary" starts out as a warped little fairy tale (the opening scene takes place in heaven, which is a retro police station decorated all in white), evolves into a tale of lovers on the lam who don't yet know they're lovers and ends up as an affirmation that true love sure kicks ass. The story revolves, like a washer on the spin cycle, around spoiled-but-lovable rich girl Celine and down-and-out janitor Robert (Ewan McGregor), who meet when Robert, angry that he's been replaced by a robot, storms into Celine's daddy's high-rise office to demand his job back. Hapless Robert accidentally shoots Celine's father in the leg -- it's Celine who slides the gun across the floor to him -- and flees with her as his "hostage."

Robert's never kidnapped anyone before: He brings Celine to a dilapidated cabin, ties her to a chair and tenderly tucks a blanket under her chin. (Later, he cooks her a plate of steak and potatoes.) Celine, who was kidnapped when she was 12, teaches him the ropes, showing him how to bellow his demands into a pay phone. Before long, the two have become partners, setting off on an odyssey of car chases and shootouts that's made even more dangerous by the two tough-talkin', gun-totin' angels -- played with sly, ruthless wit by Delroy Lindo and the marvelously unhinged Holly Hunter -- who've been assigned by top-dog angel Gabriel (the ubiquitous and wonderful Dan Hedaya) to make sure that Celine and Robert fall in love. Hunter and Lindo practically get the pair killed in the process -- they'll stop at nothing to complete their mission, knowing that love usually has to clonk people on the head before it takes.

The movie starts out so effervescent and bracing that you find yourself waiting for the big tone shift: When is all the exhilaration and kinkiness going to turn into a nightmare (as it does in Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild," which "A Life Less Ordinary" somewhat resembles)? But Boyle's tone-shifts happen in the flutter of an eyelash, not at any midway point in the movie. Like a suction-cup toy that makes its way down a wall by flipping itself over over and over, "A Life Less Ordinary" swaps moods frequently and easily. The goofy romantic bliss of a first kiss gives way to a terrifying premonition. And what a kiss! When Celine and Robert pull apart, a string of saliva, lit up like the shining filament of a spider's web, connects them for just a second. It's a moment of poetry that not only acknowledges the messiness of sex, but revels in it.

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Between its action-packed fervor and its ever-changing moods, "A Life Less Ordinary" isn't a completely sure-footed movie: Sometimes you feel it slurring a little, like a car careering out of control on an ice patch. But wonderful actors turn up in oddball roles everywhere you look: Maury Chaykin as a creepy yet strangely cherubic mountain man, Stanley Tucci as Celine's smarmy orthodontist ex, Tony Shalhoub as the owner of a diner who gives Robert a loony pep talk about love. And there haven't been any love stories this year that tap into a major artery the way "A Life Less Ordinary" does. It's the movie's leads who wield the scalpels: Celine isn't as sharply written as Robert, but Diaz carries off her role with impishness and style. With her apple cheeks and knowingly shit-eating grin, she's the kind of girl you just know would roll a drunken sailor if she came across him on the street. Yet there's vulnerability all mixed up with her insouciance. When she's separated from Robert -- emotionally if not physically -- you can see the lovesickness in her eyes. As she arches her lissome neck, her eyes wander; they're not at home unless they're seeing him.

And given McGregor's boyishness and lanky, butterfingered charm, it's easy to see why. Robert is a mystery figure in some ways: We never find out what, with his thick Scottish burr, he's doing in the United States, or why he wears hideous things like those liquidy nylon photo-print shirts, or why he's done up in a shaggy '70s Scooby-Doo haircut (which, somehow, McGregor manages to eroticize, possibly one of the minor miracles of late-20th century cinema). None of that matters. McGregor -- suggesting awkwardly that he and Celine leave their creaky cabin for a "date," or singing "Beyond the Sea" to her in a karaoke bar -- burrows straight into the movie's soul. When Robert tries to explain to Celine, in a sputtering rush, that she keeps appearing in his dreams ("I was on a game show, and my life was in danger. My life was in danger, and you saved it. My heart was beating so fast, and it stopped. I was just about to die, and you saved it."), his feverish openness stops the movie momentarily in its tracks. Those strange lines hang in the air like colored smoke -- they're dream logic, they're not intended to make sense (until the end of the movie), but McGregor makes them feel urgent and meaningful anyway. In his topsy-turvy universe, Robert is sure that the traditional roles are going to be reversed, that this time, it will be the girl who saves the boy. All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun. The boy worth saving is optional, but in "A Life Less Ordinary," he's the thing that completes the picture.


Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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