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The directing-producing-writing trio of Danny Boyle, Andrew MacDonald, and John Hodge (in that order) showboats dashingly and screws up big time from the very first scene of A Life Less Ordinary. This absurd, ugly romantic comedy opens in a police station, but with the furthest thing from the usual dark, grimy interior shot by a jerky, stuttering camera. It’s a smooth, white-on-white fantasyland of bustling but attractive cops and perps, filmed in one peaceful glide as a symphony plays in the background. Turns out this is a police station in heavenpossibly the police station in heaven; it’s not clearand what started out as a cute idea becomes charmless and problematic. Is there a crime problem up there? Does heaven really have hookers? And if there is a God, why would he make Dan Hedaya play Gabriel?
Gabriel (whose deskplate reads “chief”) is giving two of heaven’s “leading operatives” their last assignmentgo down to earth and make a couple fall in love or stay there forever. The angels are Jackson (Delroy Lindo) and O’Reilly (Holly Hunter, affecting another lip-twisting, tic-laden, bizarre vocal characterization); they’re a couple of Frank Capra’s Clarences psychoized for the Tarantino generation, a celestial Bonnie and Clyde whose relationship to Earth is never made clear.
Not that the script thinks you’ll care much, since it has already set up the pending romance as something to be wished for on the angels’ behalf, but the lovers are a sweet and confused janitor named Robert (Ewan McGregor) and the boss’s daughter, Celine (Cameron Diaz), whom Robert impulsively kidnaps after losing his job to a robot. Their romance is so preordained the only pleasure left is in watching kidnapping conventions turned on their heads as the much-abducted Celine coolly instructs her bumbling captor in the arts of rope-tying and ransom-demanding.
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Since the subsidiary story betrays such a gaping mistrust of the main story, the two plot lines clash and jar, unable to find a tone. The terms of the angels’ earthly existence are never laid out, so when they’re mangled, mashed, shot, run over, butchered, and sent off cliffs on car hoods, the audience isn’t sure whether to wince or laugha distinctly uneasy choice. They come up OK, but with some injuries, which seems like craven compromise. Most importantly, the rather fetching if slight main plot proceeds predictably apace, so while Robert and Celine are wreaking horrific violence across the Utah landscape, they’re fulfilling their heavenly duty without any help. (What makes the angels angels, aside from a capacity for quick convalescence, if they don’t even know when they’ve reached their objective?)
Clearly, the angel plot was shoehorned in to add some bloodletting and chaos to a story too simple for the trio who brought you Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. There’s enough in the acerbic love story that would have allowed it to work its own peculiar magicStanley Tucci as a creepy dentist who has set his drill for Celine, a mountain-community karaoke bar whose patrons are unfazed by visitors, Celine’s father’s impenetrable reluctance to pay for her return. But the filmmakers don’t settle for being showy when they can show off, so a lovely sequence in which the couple croon “Beyond the Sea” to a bar full of mountain men is spoiled, again, by Boyle, MacDonald, and Hodge’s mistrust of their own romanticism.
McGregor is at his most charming when playing a scruffy but naive guy with pretensions to hipnesshis elfin haircut and clingy shirts show how unaware he is of his native cooland he lets loose on the song as a kind of confession and a revel in Celine’s willing company. No sooner does his fantasy come true than the scene switches into being someone else’s fantasy of that same momentthey are in party clothes, and the roadhouse becomes a swirl of stage dancing and colored lights. What was sweet for the characters is made to look ridiculous to us.
Nothing in the script can prevent this couple from falling in love, not even the structurally awkward and atmospherically upsetting angel subplot, so their big fight is completely manufactured, their reconciliation unsatisfying. Really icky violence jostles really icky wuv in the last scene, and even the divine intervention thuds. Everyone gets what he wants, although the process of getting is so exhausting and convoluted that it hardly seems worth it. If the filmmakers believe love is a random, mercurial thing, they shouldn’t hector it into taking on such tortured, awkward shapes.
Inexplicably, the folks in Hollywood have decided to forgive Joe Eszterhas for being a cruel, stupid, sexist hack, and worse, for losing them money after they threw so much of it at him. So he’s just in time to reap humble kudos with a heartfelt coming-of-age story, Telling Lies in America, about growing up Hungarian in Cleveland and falling for the American dream. A more meretricious piece of self-mythologizing claptrap you will not see this side of Aiello: My True Story, should we ever be blessed with such a thing.
Pouty-lipped Brad Renfro plays Karchy Jonas, an unpopular Catholic high school senior with vague rock ‘n’ roll dreams. He complains about his inability to make a “th” sound, although that defect is only manifest when the actor remembers it; Jonas’ father (Maximilian Schell in the Armin Mueller-Stahl role) is a mild-mannered widower more interested in becoming a U.S. citizen than the professional man he was in the old country. Onto Cleveland’s airwaves comes Billy Magic (Kevin Bacon), a charismatic DJ with a cool patter and access to all the swinging things in life circa 1961chicks, Cadillac convertibles, filet mignon. Billy takes Karchy on as his boy wonder, whose duties are administrative and illegalhe’s the middleman in a payola system. At first Karchy emulates Billy’s every swivel, but soon enough the shadiness gives him second thoughts. He must make the right decision if he wants to hold his head up in the adult world.
It seems simple enough, but Telling Lies is a moral mess and about as unfetching as a boy’s own story can be. There’s nothing wrong with Renfro, who’s 15; it’s not his fault he was cast as a 17-year-old running in a largely adult world in which no one seems to notice he’s a little kid. This makes for queasy episodes like his persistent wooing of Diney (Calista Flockhart, cruelly unpowdered), a very much older woman he works with in a dead-end packing job. And whoever told Bacon he was a sex machine has unleashed a monster; we’ll have to hit him with a tranquilizer dart if we are to stop him from slouching about shirtless and flashing his I-kill-me smile in movie after movie.
Worst of all, the ethical question resolves itself with all the probity of the one in Scent of a Woman: The kid lies to his father, the court, and his idol, and ends up with all the goodies because of it. And it is this action, more than his understandable if misguided worship of Billy or the genuine effort he makes on behalf of Diney and other friends, that makes him heroic. Not that it’s too terribly important that this kid make it into adulthood with all his morals intact. Every time he takes another step in his quest for fame you think yeah, but he’s Joe Eszterhas; he’s only gonna grow up to unleash Flashdance on the world.CP