The absurdism at the heart of A Life Less Ordinary is the biggest hurdle audiences have to overcome.
There are some films that make you wonder who on Earth thought funding this was a good idea. 1997’s A Life Less Ordinary, directed by Danny Boyle and written by John Hodge, is an essential member of this bizarre film club. The film held firm to Boyle’s manic pace and unique style, but the quirkiness of Shallow Grave is nothing compared to A Life Less Ordinary. Because ordinary, it is not. It’s an absurdist tale of kidnapping, bribery and the timeless notion that opposites attract, couched in a tale of people up above pulling the self-determination strings. Boyle’s third directorial effort and third collaboration with Hodge, A Life Less Ordinary was his attempt to bring his kinetic energy to a more mainstream American venture, but the black comedy-romance famously flopped.
As a follow-up to Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, a heist-romance caper doesn’t make much sense. But it would seem Boyle intended to maintain his visual inventiveness and attract an even wider audience with the romance plot. The trouble is, critics and audiences at the time thought the multitude of subplots put a strain on both the narrative structure and the believability of the story. While that’s not untrue, A Life Less Ordinary is nothing if not true to Boyle’s madcap aesthetic.
Beginning with God’s displeasure at the divorce rate and Captain Gabriel (Dan Hedaya) dispatching two angels, O’Reilly (Holly Hunter) and Jackson (Delroy Lindo), from what appears to be Heaven’s police headquarters, the film hearkens back to the weirdest of movie frames (Carousel, anyone?). On paper, the entire story sounds like a cheesy romantic-comedy. The couple they are sent to pair off by any means necessary is Robert (Ewan McGregor, inexplicably portraying a Scottish character), a janitor and budding novelist whose corporate employers replace him with a robot, and Celine (Cameron Diaz), the spoiled daughter of the CEO (Ian Holm) who gets her kicks by shooting apples off of people’s heads. One is a loser but a charming dreamer, the other is entitled and bored. No wonder Celine helps Robert kidnap her.
His attempts to threaten his boss go pathetically awry, but Robert somehow winds up escaping security guards with Celine at gunpoint. The two head out to a rural cabin, and the bulk of the film sees O’Reilly and Jackson (as hired detectives working for Celine’s father) hunting the two down while indirectly pushing them together romantically. The necessity for the angel duo to moonlight as P.I.’s is unclear, as are many of their rather extreme actions (like forcing Robert to dig his own grave and make him and Celine think Jackson’s going to murder him). The irony of A Life Less Ordinary is that it’s about the inevitability of love blossoming between two people, but the story is nothing but violence and murder – and that’s sanctioned by Heaven. It’s wholly ridiculous but purposefully so.
The absurdism at the heart of A Life Less Ordinary is the biggest hurdle audiences have to overcome. From the mere fact that McGregor is a Scot living and working as a janitor in California to the impromptu dance number he and Diaz pull off gloriously, the film is riddled with bizarro moments. Why are these two mismatched people the two that O’Reilly and Jackson need to push together to prove that couples can last? How is forcing them into a relationship proving anything about love lasting? Hodge’s script has its weak points, but while the film (and its follow-up The Beach) looked like the beginning of the end for Boyle at the time, now it serves as a clear line of demarcation leading to such more well-received efforts as Millions and Slumdog Millionaire, films that put much more emphasis on romance and family drama – alongside the darker humor and complex plots that characterize the rest of his oeuvre.
A Life Less Ordinary is still a crackpot film (meant in the best way possible) with an uneven script, but it’s a much more entertaining film that initial critical response would lead you to believe. It may not be an essential Boyle film, but time and perspective have made it less of an incomprehensible blip in his career and more a steadfast companion to the rest of Boyle’s zany work.