Life or Something Like It: So sweet, syrup drips from the screen


Every now and then, filmmakers look up from their navels and notice the world around them. They reflect on What Really Matters. Warm-and-fuzzies slip into their bloodstream and go straight to the brain. Instead of doing harmless things like donating old Armani suits to the Salvation Army or watching Sullivan's Travels, Preston Sturges' 1941 comedy about a director too much in touch with his conscience, these poor souls make a movie.

I call this “It's a Wonderful” Syndrome. Symptoms include a near-death experience that “puts everything in perspective,” scenes so hokey it looks like the cinematographer smeared honey over the lens, a protagonist who acts like a jerk but finds salvation, and Michael Keaton. This affliction strikes at least once a year, often during holidays. Recent carriers have included Family Man, My Life, and Life as a House.

Life or Something Like It is one of the worst cases of “It's a Wonderful” Syndrome I've seen. Diagnosis: This patient has one week to live, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's dead by Sunday. What's unusual is, even after the inevitable life-changing episode has occurred, nothing special happens. In fact, this may be the only movie ever made where the hero grows more vapid and less self-aware after reflecting on her life.

Angelina Jolie stars as a shallow Seattle TV news reporter named Lanie Kerrigan. She's a snippy prima donna with a shock of white Marilyn hair and a personal style more Written on the Wind than Live At 5. She's engaged to a Seattle Mariner with whom she has nothing in common, wears Jackie O sunglasses to night games, and works out for hours every day. There could be a decent satire buried here, but John Scott Shepherd's story is too doggedly routine to recognize it.

With her pouty lips and smoky eyes, Jolie makes a great vamp, of course, but it's hard to buy it when you can read the confusion in her eyes about where all this is going. She plays well off Ed Burns too, getting a little Rosalind Russell thing going. He co-stars as a hated one-night stand from her past. Then he becomes her new boyfriend for no other reason than the movie needs to give her a love interest in a moment of pain.

A homeless sage named Prophet Jack (Tony Shalhoub) predicts she will be dead in a week. Lanie is unnerved but skeptical. When he predicts an earthquake, she's convinced she will die. This forces her to reflect on What Really Matters, stare at clouds, talk to her dad, and look upon the cherubic faces of children.

Life was directed by Joe Somebody's Stephen Herek, a filmmaker with a soft spot for vague-sounding titles that turn into vague movies. What would you do if you had one week to live? Lanie asks this so much, that's all she does. She shacks up with Burns' character. Sits on the couch all day. And, get this, she goes to work: she covers a strike, puts on a union coat and hat (so much for objective journalism), and leads the picketers in a shouted version of “Satisfaction.” Conveniently, everyone knows the lyrics.

The point, I guess, is that Lanie is going back to her roots. After Lanie's picket line stunt, her news director is impressed; the network even calls to offer a big job.

As this charade wore on I felt myself resisting more and more: Was it supposed to be a romance, a screwball comedy, a drama? Is Prophet Jack lucky or gifted? When is seven days up? What's today? Has she wasted three days of her last seven? Oy vey.

This isn't life or anything like it.

One final note: Life or Something Like It has some of the most shameless product placements I've ever seen. One entire scene is built on the metaphor that Lanie is like Altoids breath mints. I'm not kidding. “She's curiously strong,” a cameraman says. Ed Burns nods, and later when he thinks she's died, his tin of Altoids is empty. Maybe 20th Century Fox couldn't get a deal going with Spam.