We’ve all seen movies that go off the rails. Occasionally, though, a film 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. A Life Less Ordinary is that kind of disaster. An egregiously chaotic screwball picaresque, starring Ewan McGregor as a hapless kidnapper (I mean, romantic dreamer) and Cameron Diaz as a poor little rich girl who’s only too willing to be taken hostage (you could, in other words, call her … a romantic dreamer), the movie achieves the singular feat of being terminally whimsical and terminally raucous at the same time. Watching A Life Less Ordinary (even the title makes fun seem obtuse), we’re hit with one coy, absurdist, is-this-wild-or-what? conceit after another. Look, it’s McGregor as a ”rebel” janitor, firing bullets at the robot who just took over his job! Watch, it’s McGregor and Diaz on the lam, doing a drunken karaoke rendition of Bobby Darin’s ”Beyond the Sea”! (Small consolation: They don’t follow it up with ”I Got You, Babe.”) Behold, it’s Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo as kamikaze angels who unite our hero and heroine by opening fire on them and then — in Hunter’s case — crawling all over their speeding car!
Sitting through this fractious mess, this pileup of spectacular flakiness, you may be possessed by an overwhelming question: How can a movie this bad have been created by director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge, and producer Andrew Macdonald — the same team that made Trainspotting (also starring McGregor), last year’s invigoratingly brash and artful comedy of young punk junkies in Scotland? The answer is that sometimes, it takes people this talented to misfire this completely. There’s a fearlessness that goes into the creation of a movie as unhinged as A Life Less Ordinary, the fearlessness of audacious small filmmakers who’ve just had a worldwide hit. They may now believe that this is their first and best chance to revolutionize a mass audience. Boyle and Co. appear to think that they’re making not simply a romance but the romance — a roller-coaster myth for the ages, a soulfully madcap ’90s mélange of It Happened One Night, Topper, The Graduate, and Something Wild. That the result comes closer to a mush-minded Alan Rudolph fantasy (Made in Heaven, say) directed by Richard (Lethal Weapon) Donner tells you how easy it is for the cinematically intoxicated to leave their good sense behind.
McGregor’s puppy-prole janitor is working on a pulp novel about the secret love child of Marilyn Monroe and JFK. Diaz’s jaded princess, whose father (Ian Holm) runs the company McGregor works for, whiles away her afternoons playing violent games of William Tell with the butler. The characters have barely been introduced, and already they have wackiness coming out of their ears. When McGregor gets fired, then dumped by his girlfriend, he grabs a pistol, charges into Holm’s office, and, after a slapstick scramble with security guards, takes Diaz hostage, forcing her to drive (even though she doesn’t know how) to an idyllic mountainside cabin, where the two proceed to bicker and snarl.
It turns out that Diaz hates her father so much she doesn’t mind being kidnapped (it already happened once, when she was 12). She just wants to make sure that McGregor does it right. And so the two hatch a scheme. They make fake ransom calls, craft fake hostage notes (one of them in her blood), and take off to confront Daddy’s moneymen with those noxious angels in pursuit. Once on the road, they realize that, shucks, they kinda like each other after all.
If only we liked them! McGregor and Diaz can be charming performers, but you’d never guess it from A Life Less Ordinary. He seems mopey and precious — a Scottish Andrew McCarthy — and she delivers her lines in the bored whine of a suburban mall queen. The real problem is the movie itself. The plot, with its interlocking contrivances, is like a machine that keeps trapping the actors in its gears. Since they aren’t allowed to relate to each other on a simple human level, the spangly back-and-forth chemistry on which a romantic comedy depends is nowhere in sight. Of course, that doesn’t stop Boyle from tacking on a ”heartfelt” epilogue in which McGregor and Diaz gaze wistfully into the camera, telling us everything that they’ve learned (as the scenes we’ve come to know and adore unspool, one more time, behind them). I’m afraid, though, that the only true love on screen is the movie’s blind affection for its own awfulness. F