Z To A: A Life Less Ordinary (1997)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Celine (Cameron Diaz) is a spoiled, rich young woman whose worst nightmare is having her credit card rejected. Robert (Ewan McGregor) is a hapless janitor whose greatest dream is to write the Great American Trash Novel. They have nothing in common- except the burning desire to live “a life less ordinary.” When Celine is kidnapped by the inept Robert, a pair of celestial cops are dispatched to Earth to make sure they live that “life less ordinary” together.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

Most of A Life Less Ordinary is Ewan McGregor sucking at life, which is ridiculous because if anyone sums up the word “winning” it’s Ewan McGregor (sorry, Charlie Sheen). Of course, even this bizarro-universe loser McGregor is entertaining as hell, and that’s a large chunk of why I like this film in the first place.

In fact, it’s about 90% of why. I think of Ordinary along similar lines as The Singing Detective: a beautiful disaster. It doesn’t work as a whole but has some spectacularly funny scenes and performances- yes, even from Cameron Diaz, who the Internet still screams at for “ruining” Gangs Of New York (it happened over ten years ago… seriously people, it’s time to move on).

The other 10% is the sharp writing and cinematic magic director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge manage to coast on following the smash success of Trainspotting (1996). However, I think Ordinary was made too quickly, a bad case of “striking while the iron’s hot.” The screenplay seems to be a first draft and the direction seems unsure, incomplete and inconsistent. The results are more like a sketchpad than the real thing, but even still… the flashes of brilliance in this make each viewing worthwhile.

McGregor stars as Robert Lewis, a janitor with the worst luck and the worst haircut. He is also dressed in the worst shirt but somehow makes it work. He loses his job, his girlfriend, his home and all of his possessions over the course of a day, leading him to some desperate choices.

Dude is under a lot of pressure.

In the meantime we’re also introduced to Celine Naville (Diaz), who is rich, bored, hostile and- well- odd, playing William Tell with her father’s bodyguard and rejecting a marriage proposal. Her gunplay is what lands her in her father’s office and in Robert’s path, but it’s pretty clear she won’t be intimidated by either of them.

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Thing is she and Robert are (literally) destined to meet as the latter hits rock bottom, and keeping with the film’s madcap tone, it’s through a kidnapping.

Kid: "How did you meet Dad?" Celine: "I don't want to talk about it."

Kid: “How did you meet Dad?”
Celine: “I don’t want to talk about it.”

If the film was about that and nothing more, I think it would have been enough. The story would have been leaner and had more focus and drive. Instead there’s a framing device about God, heaven, destiny, an angry Angel Gabriel (Dan Hedaya) and two angels- O’Reilly (Holly Hunter) and Jackson (Delroy Lindo)- sent to make Robert and Celine fall in love.

Mostly by shooting at them every five minutes.

Mostly by shooting at them every five minutes.

Delroy and Hunter aren’t at fault here, but if they had just been inept bounty hunters Ordinary would have been fine. But they aren’t. They are all over the place and spend most of the film dying and resurrecting like characters in a Warner Bros. cartoon. Even stranger, no one seems to notice and say, “Haven’t I seen you before?” or “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” Their behavior is erratic as well, changing personas from one moment to the next. This is especially true for Hunter, who goes from acting like a cat in heat to spitting tobacco juice and acting like a serial killer.

Celine: "What's he going to do with him?" O'Reilly: "Shoot him in the back of the head."

Celine: “What’s he going to do with him?”
O’Reilly: (mouth full) “Shoot him in the back of the head.”

By the time this begins to grate on me the third act arrives and it’s riiiiidiculous. I’m not a fan of it, but it’s the only ending available. So I watch it anyway.

With Ordinary I dwell on what works, as well as where the characters are the most developed. The scenes during Robert and Celine’s stay at the cabin are the strongest and the most quotable, up to the botched hostage-ransom exchange. I also love their visit to Celine’s ex, Elliot Zweikel (Stanley Tucci), who is still recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.

But above all, I just love the sound of Ewan McGregor’s pathetic cry noises when he’s ordered to dig his own grave. It’s one of the funniest and most terrifying noises I’ve ever heard.

The film provides some unexpected implications as well. Further viewings have made me realize some interesting things about Celine. Her questioning of Robert’s motives, her previous kidnap and her behavior with Eliot say a lot more about her than what we see onscreen. Over time I got the impression that her first kidnap was of a violent and sexual nature, prolonged by her father’s apathy. This explains who she is, how she behaves and why Robert begins to mean something to her. He is strikingly different from the other men in her life, and she falls in love before he does.

But of course, all of this leads to her shooting him in the heart. But he lives, because… God? Love? Destiny? A free pass?

I don’t know. And apparently neither does he. Also, it seems there’s a lightbulb in his chest cavity.

He might want to get that checked out.

For all of its bumbling, silliness and nonsensical ending (there are actually three endings to this film, I don’t like any of them) I would still recommend Ordinary to anyone. Some of its scenes stand alone as a reason to watch, nothing else. I’ve also noticed that I’m not the only one who feels this way, having an affection for it in spite of its flaws.

In fact, I’m sure Ordinary was one of the first DVDs I ever purchased, and although it isn’t my favorite film of all time I’m not embarrassed to admit it. I have no regrets.

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One thought on “Z To A: A Life Less Ordinary (1997)

  1. The script was so well written in certain parts. And yes I totally agree they should have left the whole angel story out. Would have been better without it. Good review!

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