Films

Contrived to be cute

A muddle of whimsy kills a comedy

Brian D. Johnson November 3 1997
Films

Contrived to be cute

A muddle of whimsy kills a comedy

Brian D. Johnson November 3 1997

Contrived to be cute

A muddle of whimsy kills a comedy

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Films

The British invasion continues apace. After the steelworker striptease of The Full Monty and the lavatory slapstick of Bean, another Brit comedy takes aim at the North American box office. With A Life Less Ordinary, the writer, the producer and the director of Trainspotting and Shallow Grave take their act to America and try to teach Hollywood a thing or two about romantic comedy. The result is not entirely disastrous, but it is a major disappointment considering the talent of those involved.

Trainspotting star Ewan McGregor plays Robert, a doltish janitor in a giant corporation who inadvertently kidnaps the boss’s daughter after losing his job to a robot and losing his girlfriend to an aerobics instructor. Cameron Diaz (The Mask, My Best Friend’s Wedding) plays the kidnap “victim,” Celine, a bored rich girl who hates her father (Ian Holm) and is only too happy to be abducted. In fact, as they head into the Utah desert, she has to coach her inept captor in the most basic etiquette of phone threats and ransom demands.

A LIFE LESS ORDINARY

Danny Boyle

That deadpan conceit is fun for a while. But in trying to re-jig every convention under the Hollywood sun, director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge have concocted a coy, selfindulgent pastiche that is not just off-kilter but all over the map. With a style bouncing between Frank Capra and the Coen brothers, the story is framed by the antics of two annoying angels (Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo), celestial cops who will be booted out of heaven unless they can manoeuvre Robert and Celine into true romance. Their subplot is all clutter and confusion, and Hunter seems to be lost in a movie all her own: bloodied, battered and leering with inexplicable lust after being repeatedly run over by a car, her character could be a burlesque parody of her role in Crash.

There are some amusing moments—the best involves an encounter with a hillbilly played by Maury Chaykin. But the movie’s runaway whimsy fails to camouflage a lack of chemistry between the two leads, who are extremely cute but oddly mismatched. McGregor, an actor bristling with intelligence and wit, seems dying to burst out of his dumb-and-dumber role as the male ingenue. And Diaz, an Evianfresh vision of sexy innocence, seems out of her depth as the bitchy smart blond. Ultimately, however, the fault lies with the film-makers who, in their struggle to stay hip, fail to settle on a reality—even a cartoonish one—that makes sense. Moviegoers looking for a divine comedy about fallen angels manipulating mortals would be better off checking out Devil’s Advocate, starring a wonderfully over-the-top AÍ Pacino as a law-firm Lucifer. Compared to A Life Less Ordinary, it’s cheesy, it’s dreadfully unhip, it’s made in Hollywood and it features no one from Trainspotting. But the Brits can’t win them all.

The devil's apprentice

As the saying goes, any American kid can grow up to be president. But what does it take for a homely Hungarian immigrant to grow up to be the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood history, and creator of such dubious cinematic landmarks as Basic Instinct and Showgirls? If the hero of this semi-autobiographical movie is any indication, an instinctive lack of integrity would seem to be a good start. Scripted by Joe Eszterhas, Telling Lies in America is the tale of a Hungarian teenager—like Eszterhas—who gets his first bittersweet taste of showbiz sleaze as a disc jockey’s helper in Cleveland. The character, who tries to lie his way out of adolescent insecurity, is not very likable. But that is part of the film’s rude charm. An unvarnished coming-of-age story, this slim nostalgia piece serves as an act of atonement for the glossy cynicism of the movies that have made Eszterhas rich.

TELLING LIES IN AMERICA

Guy Ferland

Karchy (Brad Renfro) is desperate for acceptance in America. The blue-collar son of a Hungarian refugee father (Maximilian Schell), he is an outcast in his Catholic high school. And he is struggling to impress a girl. By forging votes in a radiostation popularity contest,

Karchy wins an audience with star disc jockey Billy Magic (Kevin Bacon). Then, in a classic deal with the devil, the boy becomes Billy’s apprentice— and his unwitting accomplice in delivering payola bribes. With a snake-oil mix of slickness and grit, Bacon does a superb job of portraying a devil who deserves some sympathy. Eszterhas, however, ends his script with a feat of moral fudging that makes you wonder if the real prince of darkness is not alive and well and writing in Hollywood.