Inexplicable, Unpredictable, and Absolutely Beyond Control

20th Century Fox

In the introduction to his screenplay for A Life Less Ordinary, published to coincide with the release of the completed film in 1997, John Hodge lays out two possible trajectories for a love story: “…either things go all right and nothing very exciting/funny/horrific happens and at the end they’re happy or sad or a mixture thereof (i.e. like real life), or exciting/funny/horrific things happen after which they are unreservedly and blissfully happy (i.e. like in the movies).” Hodge goes own to write that while scripts of the first type are “engrossing, touching, [and] thought-provoking,” he “can’t do those ones.” Following this self-deprecating flourish, he offers what he calls “a love story of realistic emotion set against a backdrop of fantasy,” one that includes a pair of gun-toting angels, a prophetic dream, and a climactic miracle.

It doesn’t quite work.

As a story, A Life Less Ordinary doesn’t make all that much sense. One of the script’s central conceits is that God is displeased with the rising rates of divorce and unhappy marriage on Earth, and thus the aforementioned angels, O’Reilly (Holly Hunter) and Jackson (Delroy Lindo), must be successful in their next attempt to unite a man and a woman in lasting love, or else be banished from heaven forever. The premise feels somewhat quaint, and even—with its emphasis on legally recognized heterosexual marriage—conservative to a 21st century viewer. But beyond that, it’s unclear why the pair are specifically charged with matching a bored, discontented rich girl named Celine (Cameron Diaz) with a janitor named Robert (Ewan McGregor), who was recently fired by Celine’s powerful father. There also isn’t much said about why there’s such a growing dearth of true love on Earth in the first place.

For her part, O’Reilly claims, “Things have changed down there. Men and women, aren’t like they used to be.” But what exactly does that mean? It’s a blank one can fill in with one’s own politics or worldview, but it also makes O’Reilly and Jackson’s out-there mission that much hazier. It doesn’t help that we don’t see many couples in action other than Robert and Celine. There’s the chilly, adversarial relationship between Celine and her would-be fiancé Elliot (Stanley Tucci), who she somewhat-accidentally shoots in the midst of a William Tell-inspired round of target practice, but their interactions hardly read as typical.

Adding to the confusion is Robert’s decision to kidnap Celine, something that O’Reilly and Jackson seem to have actively driven him to (at the very least, they engineer his eviction from his apartment, the last in a series of indignities and the one that finally spurs him to seek revenge against Celine’s father). Why, of every possible meet-cute scenario one could imagine for a janitor and the boss’ daughter, do O’Reilly and Jackson choose a criminal offense? I dunno. They later decide that “jeopardy” will be their primary tool in trying to unite the two would-be lovers, which leads to a lot of jarring scenes of the angels nearly murdering their charges, and again, some confusion. If Robert and Celine are going to fall in everlasting love, why do they need guns to their heads just to get started?

The finished film, which clips along through its fairly lean 103-minute running time, also loses some clarity and characterization by cutting dialogue and details that appear in the screenplay. Among them: O’Reilly’s poignant explanation of how, in order to become a matchmaking angel, one must first “die wronged and betrayed in love…So you spend eternity seeking to give others what you could not have yourself.” I’m not sure why those lines, which make O’Reilly considerably more sympathetic, were cut, but perhaps the filmmakers (or the studio) decided to lose them in an effort to keep things brisk and breezy. If so, that’s a shame: Just as sepia-toned Kansas gives Dorothy’s Technicolor adventures in Oz greater significance, the specter of O’Reilly’s loneliness and disappointment could have made Robert and Celine’s romance sweeter.

The screenplay also includes an agreeably whimsical running gag where Robert consults a purportedly mystical spinning knife at his local pub, and a number of scenes bridging the second and third act, all of which might have smoothed over some of the film’s choppiest bits of storytelling. As journalist Ben Thompson noted in the The Independent around the time of the film’s release, “The bits marked ‘cut from completed film’ are the ones that would have made it make sense.” In response to Thompson’s inquiries about the cuts, the film’s director, Danny Boyle—who previously collaborated with Hodge (and MacGregor) on the successful indie Shallow Grave and the masterful and zeitgeisty Trainspotting—suggested that, “If people get caught up in it, they will enjoy the fact that some of it is pretty inexplicable…And the justification for that, and this is the pompous bit, is that that’s a bit like what it’s like to be in love.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the film hit theaters, many critics were less than charmed by its most inexplicable moments. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman gave it an “F,” calling it a “fractious mess” and a “pileup of spectacular flakiness,” and saying that it “is so out of balance, so extravagantly misconceived, that it goes off the rails, zooms over the cliff, and crashes into the canyon, laughing all the way.” The film had a short, unhappy life at the box office and is still probably best remembered for its hip soundtrack featuring the Sneaker Pimps, Beck, and Underworld, as well as the much-loved title track by the Irish band Ash. At least in part because of that song, the film’s evocative title—which is, according to Hodge, a quote from a novel he never got around to writing—has enjoyed its own strange afterlife, borrowed now and then by authors and songwriters for their own purposes.

So, if A Life Less Ordinary is a mess, a box office disappointment, and a lesser film in the oeuvre of Danny Boyle (whose career has recovered nicely enough), why am I bothering to write about it at all?

To be honest? I like it.

In fact, I’ve probably revisited it more often than a number of films that are objectively much better. Boyle’s claim that audiences might “enjoy the fact that some of it is pretty inexplicable” might sound like a copout, but the film’s utter strangeness does contribute to its overall charm. Romantic comedies are both prized and criticized for their predictability; the thing that makes them great cinematic comfort food also makes them prone to dull, formulaic storytelling. A Life Less Ordinary—with its muddled celestial mechanizations, eccentric characters, and loose relationship with reality—doesn’t feel like it’s adhering to a formula. Indeed, it is so odd, and yet so memorable, that it feels more like a vivid dream than a cookie-cutter Hollywood love story.

Like a dream (or for that matter, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show) the details of A Life Less Ordinary don’t quite add up in the harsh light of day, even if its mood and images tend to linger on the brain. Throughout the film, Robert has a reoccurring dream about Celine that we glimpse only in flashes, and that he explains in vague fragments: He’s on a game show, his life is in danger, and Celine saves him. The dream proves prophetic in a confounding way: just when it looks like Robert is about to be killed under the directive of Celine’s vengeful father, Celine steps in and shoots Robert herself. The bullet passes harmlessly through his heart, which emits a glow and keeps on beating, a striking image that the film doesn’t bother to explain beyond the hastily-sketched suggestion of top-level divine intervention. I remember feeling like I was missing something on my first viewing, but I wasn’t, really; Celine shooting Robert and Robert’s survival are unapologetic leaps into dream logic from a romantic comedy that can’t seem to stop itself from wading into the surreal. Following this scene, Robert describes love as “inexplicable, unpredictable, and absolutely beyond control or understanding,” and of course he’s really talking about the film itself.

A Life Less Ordinary is likable in large part because it lives up to its beguiling title. While it might be an imperfect film, it certainly isn’t ordinary, and it has an amiable digressive quality. The best bit is the musical sequence, which finds Robert crooning “Beyond the Sea” to Celine at a barroom karaoke night after the pair lie to some locals about Robert being an acclaimed pop star. Robert takes the stage in street clothes and initially sings while glancing down at the lyrics on a monitor, but then Celine joins him onstage and, grinning, they confidently start to dance. In a blink, Robert is in a dapper suit and Celine is wearing a spangled blue dress out of an MGM musical. Robert appears first behind a drum kit, then on top of the bar, then sliding toward Celine on his knees, never with enough time to get from one place to the other. Blink your eyes again, and he and Celine are dancing and twirling together atop the bar. Finding fault with A Life Less Ordinary often involves asking, “Why?” about its plotting, but the musical number arrives with a shrugging, cheerful “Why not?” quality that’s hard to resist. It’s the scene that best aligns with Boyle’s comments about the film depicting love’s inexplicability, and Hodge’s intention of writing a couple who are “blissfully happy…like in the movies.”

There are other flourishes that add to the film’s irregular texture, such as an animated sequence during the end credits where Robert and Celine drive a flying car to Scotland and buy a castle (Why not?), and the inclusion of some amusing and thoroughly Lynchian supporting characters. While on the lam, Robert and Celine run into a backwoods neighbor who insists, “I am a regular man” in a manner that suggests the opposite, as well as Walt, an overly perky gas station attendant who excitedly touts the “extensive washroom and retail facility” at his place of employ. Walt, in particular, offers some insight into this scatterbrained film’s central themes. After Celine scolds Robert, a recently-dismissed janitor himself, for being blatantly rude to Walt, Robert backtracks, giving Walt a large tip and telling him, “You’re a man, Walt. Not a slave, not a machine. Don’t let anyone ever treat you otherwise.” The film’s romantic notions of pursuing the “less ordinary” seem to be in part a response to the dehumanizing standardization of the modern world: Heaven is depicted as a bureaucracy, Gabriel is a harried middle-manager, and Robert (whose name is only a few letters away from “robot”) is replaced at his job by an automated cleaner with a color scheme that mimics that of Robert’s work uniform. Robert and Celine’s law-breaking romance is an escape from their otherwise pale and circumscribed existences.

What’s more, as critic Maryann Johanson noted in her review, A Life Less Ordinary offers a “reversal of typical gender roles.” As Johanson observes, “Even though Robert is 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.” In the kidnapping scene, Celine kicks the gun toward Robert, and it’s later her decision to write her father a ransom note in her own blood. (When Celine cuts her own arm, Robert faints.) Robert ties her up on the first night of her kidnapping, but she easily escapes her bonds and elects to stay with Robert for her own reasons. The whole thing may end in a wedding, but it’s one where Robert sports a kilt and Celine wears the pants. Celine’s fiancé and father scold her for her lack of traditionally “feminine” obedience, while Robert is frequently derided for being a “dreamer,” embodying a less traditionally masculine role. Together, the film suggests, these characters can be themselves.

This is a story about people overcoming expectation and mundanity, and in a way, it’s only appropriate that it’s something of a shaggy dog story, and indeed a bit of a mess. In the real world, pursuing a life less ordinary is a messy, painful, confusing, and sometimes marvelous thing, but certainly not something that anyone gets exactly right. Danny Boyle’s buoyantly discombobulated film is endearing not because it gets everything just right, but because it represents such a spirited attempt to transcend the everyday.