The big emotional breakthrough scene in Life or Something Like It features Angelina Jolie, wearing pajamas and a baseball cap, singing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” backed by a slew of bus drivers. Jolie’s playing Lanie Kerrigan, an ambitious Seattle tv reporter who at this point has been assigned to cover the drivers’ strike. The immediate impetus for her apparent breakthrough is “stress”: the night before, she broke up her All-Star pitcher boyfriend, started pondering the meaning of life, and drank too much. And so, while her crew and producers look on aghast — “That is one crazy chick!” exults one obeserver — Lanie puts on a bizarre show, balls-out adorable and blissfully shameless.
In real life, or something like it, such an on-air meltdown might cost someone her job. But here, in you-go-girl romantic-comedy-land, it gets Lanie a new boyfriend and a promotion. As Lanie observes, so very philosophically at film’s beginning, “Things happen, things you never see coming.”
Happily for her, but tediously for you, these things — save for this three-minute adventure — are blandly generic. Her trajectory is supposed to be from shallow to deep, or at least, unshallow. But truth be told, she can’t really budge, given the formula she’s living in.
Pre-strike spot, Lanie is presented pretty much as a one-dimensional career girl: always flawlessly coiffed (with poofy platinum hair), and dressed in painful spike heels and pert designer suits, Lanie is quickly grinding her way to an emotional nowhere. She lives in a white-on-white apartment with her boyfriend the baseball player (the wholly forgettable Christian Kane), zips about in a silver Mercedes convertible, works out furiously at the gym, eats “nothing but lettuce,” and has her sights set on being network interviewer (her role model is a Barbara Walters-style diva with a rep for making her subjects cry, here played by Stockard Channing).
And yet, despite her “Diamonds Are Girl’s Best Friend” looks, the movie insists that Lanie is only superficially superficial. Really, she has issues. The movie’s only been rolling for a few minutes before it resorts to home-movie-ish childhood flashbacks to reveal that she’s an overachiever with good reason, namely, insecurities. She’s jealous of her ex-cheerleader, upscale suburbanite sister and desperate for her working class dad’s affections (he was always down at the factory when she needed him, apparently). Such deep-seated trauma makes Lanie disposed to the calamity that drives the film, namely, a prediction by a street prophet named Jack (Tony Shaloub) that she will be dead in a week.
This is alarming news, even if you don’t believe in homeless seers, as Lanie doesn’t. And immediately, she suspects that her cameraman and onetime one-night-stand, Pete (Edward Burns, who has recently informed Parade magazine that he’s “proud to be a New York policeman’s son”) has put Jack up to it. But Pete, much as he likes to harass Lanie about what he sees as her meaningless perfectionism, swears up and down that oh no, Jack is the real deal. And Pete should know, because he’s plainly the film’s standard-bearer of realness, having years ago lost a network job because he made a principled stand about something. Though Jack is probably raggedy and cynical enough to give Pete a run for Sincerest Male in the Movie, he’s also neither young nor pretty enough to be Lanie’s love object.
And so, because she’s stuck in a formula film, Lanie’s also stuck between two very limited options. She can couple up with the terminally uninteresting and unnervingly juvenile baseball player, who endeavors to appease her anxiety with a trip to the ballpark (her nonplussed response — “Your cure for my emotional crisis is batting practice?” — aptly sums up their relationship). Or she can hook up with scruffy Pete, whose earnestness can be measured by his dedication to maintaining a two-day stubble. That, and the fact that he makes breakfast for Lanie when she’s hung over, brewing coffee and cracking eggs in close-up, and — perhaps most important — letting her wear his Social Distortion t-shirt.
Lanie’s further exposed to the joys of sincere living when Pete invites her to spend a day with him and his young son, who, in between rides at the amusement park, displays the movie-child mix of insight and obnoxiousness, observing that she should have performed “Nookie” instead of that ancient Stones song (he’s onto something too, as the Limp Bizkit track rather updates the Stones’ plaint, but here the adults just shake their heads in wonderment at the kid’s precious precociousness).
At the close of this consummately nuclear-familial day, well, wouldn’t you know, Lanie’s in love with Earnest Guy, um, Pete, and ready to give up her petty pursuits for him. But Life or Something Like It still has another 20some minutes to go, so the plot stretches out over a reel or so’s worth of extenuated and increasingly annoying crisis: Lanie gets that job offer she’s been seeking all her life, fights with Prince Earnest and leaves for New York, where she has an emotional sit-down with Baba Wawa Clone (Channing is ill-used in this corniest of roles). And oh yes, Pete undergoes his own head-smacking realization that he loves this girl, and incidentally, believes that Jack’s prophecy is about to come true. So he hops on a plane and, oh well, there’s much bustling and decision-making and especially, some slow motion violence that takes place in the city.
While this last bit of plot (not to mention location) was surely decided long before 9-11, the situation does start to feel a bit too like a lesson based on (or perhaps gleaned from) that day: life is uncertain, so you should make a conscious effort to declare your devotions, early and often. But when you apply this kind of harsh truth to a romantic comedic resolution — that is, one that is so clearly predetermined and so void of flexibility, alternatives, or really, much uncertainty — the ostensible lesson looks feeble and banal. Most regrettably, Lanie — so brilliant and promising in her big moment — ends up looking banal. She’s not a crazy chick at all.