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Cliche-spotting

Stylishness without substance can become wearying fast. Twenty minutes into A Life Less Ordinary, the new movie from the producing/directing/writing team that created Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, I was already into overload. It's not that director Danny Boyle doesn't have imagination. It's just that sometimes imagination is all he has.

There's something a bit creepy and amoral about the way Boyle turns all experience -- from the horrific to the clownish -- into grist for his jitterbug avant-gardism. His style doesn't serve his subjects, it gooses them. For example, all that show-offy hyperactivity in Trainspotting, a movie about heroin addicts, didn't make much sense. Heroin, after all, is a downer, not an upper. But audiences hip to the latest whiz-bang music videos could cheerily connect with the film's eye-candy visuals, and Boyle's gloss on painters such as Francis Bacon and playwrights such as John Osborne gave it all a cultural cachet.

Still, on its own terms, Trainspotting held together; you may not have liked the view, but it was a complete vision. A Life Less Ordinary, starring Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz, doesn't add up -- stylistically, dramatically or emotionally. To some extent, that's intentional. Boyle and his screenwriter John Hodge are trying for a mishmash of tones. Part tutti-frutti fantasy, part kidnap melodrama, part screwball farce, it's blitheringly ambitious. What's missing is romance. Despite the engaging friskiness of its two stars, the film is romantically vapid. Watching it is like trying to warm up to a hologram.

And it's not even a fresh hologram. Essentially A Life Less Ordinary is that old yawn about the woman who is kidnapped and then takes charge of her kidnapping. We've already had one of those this year, Excess Baggage, featuring Alicia Silverstone as a brat who colludes with her captor to turn the tables on her fat-cat father. That film was aimed at teenage girls who want to feel like juvenile delinquent princesses. A Life Less Ordinary also panders to its target audience, although it may end up just bewildering them.

It opens with a white-on-white sequence that's a nod to the British kitsch classic Stairway to Heaven (co-directed by Emeric Pressburger, grandfather of Boyle's producer, Andrew Macdonald). The Archangel Gabriel (Dan Hedaya) has sent to Earth two angelic emissaries, O'Reilly (Holly Hunter) and Jackson (Delroy Lindo), to carry out God's unheeded plan to "unite men and women" in marriage. Apparently the sexes haven't been hitting it off lately. The Earthlings chosen for unification are rich-bitch Celine (Diaz), who gets her sport shooting apples off the head of her manservant (Ian McNeice), and Robert (McGregor), a disgruntled janitor working in the corporation of Celine's father (Ian Holm). He dreams of writing the "Great American Trash Novel."

That dream is a tip-off. Boyle and Hodge want us to see their film as a play on the cliches of romantic fiction. But Harlequin tomes at least have the honesty of their low intentions. They don't try to turn themselves into something higher than what they are. A Life Less Ordinary could take a lesson from Barbara Cartland: Keep the swooning front and center.

When, in mid-kidnap, Robert berates Celine for reading a pink-jacketed paperback titled Love Me Tomorrow, she responds by saying, "It's bullshit, but that doesn't mean I'm not enjoying it." That's a tip-off, too. But why should we be bamboozled into accepting the ineptitude of this folderol just because the filmmakers are winking at us?

The angels in the movie are meant to remind us not only of Stairway to Heaven but also of It's a Wonderful Life. But the angels in those films were integral. In A Life Less Ordinary, they could be eliminated with no dramatic loss; it would probably, in fact, be a gain. They seem to be in the movie for the usual Boyle reason: They cut a good picture. Lindo and Hunter -- black and tall, white and puny -- match up like Pop artifacts. Boyle slams them around as if he were Chuck Jones. There's one ugly sequence in particular where Hunter, after a high-speed chase, is crushed right into a boulder -- for laughs. From where I sat in the theater, I didn't hear too many chuckles.

Boyle and Hodge try to spin the standard romantic-comedy game plan by having Robert and Celine swap traditional roles. Essentially, Celine is in the "male" aggressor position and Robert is the flustered sweet soul who doesn't even know how to engineer a proper ransom. This might have worked if either of these actors were demonstrably performing against type, but they have no "type." Based on other movies we've seen them in, they're blessedly uncategorizable.

McGregor (who has been cast as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the next Star Wars installment) is too volatile and sinuous an actor to settle into this film's flip-flop conception; he's made to appear uncomfortably recessive. Diaz is also a far more captivatingly freeform performer than this film allows for. She was great in her movie debut opposite Jim Carrey in The Mask because her wide-apart features and goldfish eyes were glamorously comic. She was as stretchy as her co-star. In My Best Friend's Wedding, Diaz turned what might have been the patsy role -- the sweet young put-upon thing -- into something touching and true. In A Life Less Ordinary she's dolled up in Versace, and, pleasing as that may be, it's a waste to see Diaz in a role that is essentially decorative.

Boyle also uses the lush fall landscapes of Utah, where most of the movie was shot, as decoration. He originally wanted to film in France and Scotland, and because a fair amount of the humor has a British flavoring, the relocation to America dislocates the drama. The effect is a bit like watching It Happened One Night transposed to Sussex.

It helps, in trying to undermine the preconceptions of romantic comedy, if you understand those conceptions. Boyle and Hodge may be trying to riff on romantic cliches, but they don't really care enough about them. What they care about is shooting the works. Did they worry their fans would disown them if they didn't go blooey? If so, the joke's on them -- the best scene in the movie by far is a no-frills monologue about romantic compatibility delivered by Tony Shalhoub as a barman friend of Robert's. In the movies, as in life, sometimes simple is best.

A Life Less Ordinary.
Directed by Danny Boyle. With Ewan McGregor, Cameron Diaz, Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo.

Rated R.
103 minutes.

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