Does crossing the quarter century line make something historically important?
Lovers that are literally star-crossed by the bureaucracy of heaven. Fate and art playing against one another over style and crime. Young performers and a director after breakout roles and on the verge of superstardom. That is “A Life Less Ordinary,” Danny Boyle’s 1997 follow up to “Trainspotting,” which stars Cameron Diaz and Ewan McGregor, up and coming stars at the time.
The movie features all the signatures of an award winning director and his burgeoning celebrities, but it was missed by many at the time. Many things, from rock and roll bands to buildings to neighborhoods, get considered for hall of fame or landmark status once they hit age 25.
Diaz and McGregor star as Celine and Robert. Coming from their initial breakthrough roles in “The Mask” and “Trainspotting” respectively, the movie is associated with an important spot in the lives of these actors. This was the point where they were moving from initial notoriety to acclaim and stardom. Within a year, Diaz would appear in “Something About Mary,” while McGregor was headed for the Star Wars film franchise, a role he continues today.
It is also a notable early work by director Danny Boyle, whose fingerprints are all over the design and construction of this narrative film. Boyle had also recently finished “Trainspotting,” and he was heading to direct “The Beach” and “28 Days Later,” the latter being such a quintessential horror movie that it changed the genre and started the craze for zombies. Further work by the director included “Slumdog Millionaire,” for which he won an Oscar, and the planning and creative direction of opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics.
The look of the “A Life Less Ordinary” embodies distinctive visible characteristics of late 90’s film. Apples and hearts are pierced by bullets in cut-aways that could only be accomplished by post “Jurassic Park” CGI. The frosty Celine melts when pulled into a karaoke performance that turns into a stylized “Pulp Fiction” dance number. Fashion design icons are pulled in for costuming the fitted suit jackets and patterned shirts, as Luc Besson did earlier the same year with Jean Paul Gaultier’s clothing in “The Fifth Element.”
The film is so associated with the significant cultural, political or economic heritage of fin-de-siecle America that it’s impossible to mention the era without thinking about the works of Boyle, McGregor, and Diaz. It’s the ramping up of raunchy comedy meeting the frenetic pace of filmmakers that were raised on music videos and post-“Simpsons” storytelling. Moving through setback and robbery, the film shows the modernized crime spree motif, started by “Natural Born Killers” and repeated often through “Me, Myself, and Irene.”
All of these together absolutely qualify “A Life Less Ordinary” for landmark status. Unfortunately, the movie is not actually any good.
Must landmarks be worthy?
But does “good” or “worthy” really matter when it comes to establishing something as a landmark? If we look up the rules for landmark status in Seattle, we see that things like “good” and “worthy” and “upholding white supremacy” and “blocking affordable housing and livable neighborhoods” do not come into the calculation. Indeed, the list of considerations for Seattle’s landmark status are what’s listed above. Is a building associated with an important life or designer? Does it show the distinctive visual character of the period? Or does it contribute to the culture of the city or a neighborhood? If any of those apply, come on down for landmark status once you turn 25.
Forget the fact that “A Life Less Ordinary” is a cocktail of four different plots and a dozen different themes that tries to use watered down edginess and Ewan McGregor’s affecting smile to round out its plot holes. Boyle’s notable use of music in his films fails here with third wave grunge playing over comedy, putting scenes with music that’s inconsistent if not completely contradictory. Similarly, Wallingford doesn’t have much consistency between its cookie cutter houses that appear in every other city in the nation, and it’s applying for landmark status.
We can also overlook that Diaz’s Celine is kidnapping herself to get back at daddy to prove she’s not as crazy as her mother. Mostly her personality is set by her volumized blonde pixie haircut. But she’s not at any sort of disadvantage in the movie because most of McGregor’s personality as Robert is established by a quirky Gucci shirt. It’s as hollow as letting 60-some McMansions at 18-acre Talaris site in Laurelhurst destroy the former conference center’s landmark buildings and landscaping without considering any alternatives that could provide much needed denser, more affordable housing and green space.
And it’s possible to look past how the movie plot depends on Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo as matchmaking angels threatened with mortality if they fail to get Celine and Robert to hook up. (Yes, that happens.) The angels do this by prompting and herding the kidnapping caper before turning violent over a love poem. (That too.) A special recognition needs to be made for Holly Hunter’s accent, unintelligible through her scene chewing, and scrawling after she’s driven off a cliff. It all makes just as much sense as preserving the gutted Showbox theater as a landmark just to appease the neighboring condo owners who didn’t want their views blocked.
The problem, of course, is that the rules that apply to buildings probably should not apply to films. To do this shows the absurdity of Seattle’s landmark rules. Like 1990’s filmmaking, Seattle is pretty young and doesn’t need to play at being old. Seattle had one near-miss with wrongheaded historic demolition when Pike Place Market was slated for towers. Our reaction was to import heavy-handed overregulation from east coast cities that have three hundred more years of stuff to preserve.
“A Life Less Ordinary” ends with a dual dialogue by Diaz and McGregor. Over cuts of what just happened in the movie, they talk directly at the camera in a stilted debate over dreams and art and fate and trying to find their place. It’s a pretty good warm up for the “Love Is Oxygen” monologue McGregor does four years later in “Moulin Rouge.”
If this nonsensical pittance of a film had been considered a magnum opus, we would never get to the many other movies that made Diaz and McGregor and Boyle into the notable stars they became. No Princess Fiona. No Master Obi-Wan. No fast zombies. Many of those other films exist because this one failed. A Life Less Ordinary is not a landmark. It is ordinary. Just like most of a healthy city like Seattle should aim to be.
Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.