THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


What would you do if you only had a week left to live? That question has fueled all kinds of movies and stories over the years. It is, in some ways, the perfect hypothetical question. The problem with it is that we can never really know. It's one thing to sit and think about over coffee; in the panicky reality of such a situation, your reaction might be something different altogether. Hollywood movies tell us that we would undoubtedly use that last week to better ourselves, to make up for past mistakes. But hey - isn't it just as likely that we'd want to get revenge against the person we most hate without fear of going to prison? Now there's a movie I'd like to see. Until someone takes that idea and runs with it, we're stuck with films such as Life or Something Like It, which offer only the most noble ideas about this question.

Angelina Jolie plays Lanie Kerrigan, an artificially blonde TV reporter in Seattle. Through a prologue, we learn that she was something of an ugly duckling. Her past insecurities fuel her desire to get ahead, and getting ahead means snagging a network job in New York City. To help increase her network desirability, Lanie is assigned, against her will, to work with cameraman Pete (Edward Burns). He's one of the best in the business and can make her look good. The problem is that they are former flames who now can't stand each other (and that, of course, means that they will fall in love by the end of the movie!)

Angelina Jolie and Edward Burns play feuding ex-flames in Life or Something Like It
On an assignment to interview a homeless person, Lanie talks to Prophet Jack (Tony Shalhoub), a street psychic who makes surprisingly accurate predictions about sporting events and traffic patterns. During the interview, Prophet Jack drops a bombshell: "Next Thursday, you're going to die." When his other predictions come true, Lanie starts to believe she really is destined to kick the proverbial bucket. So she does what any one-dimensional, superficial movie character would do: she sets out to find the real meaning of life.

For a movie that extols the virtues of deep living, Life or Something Like It is surprisingly shallow. You get a lot of really familiar scenes, like the one where Lanie's seemingly uninterested father conveniently lays his approval on her right when she most needs it. Or the one where Lanie ditches her insensitive baseball playing boyfriend. Or the one in which she runs into the arms of Pete for comfort when things are at their worst. The hypothetical question that provides the basis for this film is not an easy one, but the screenplay makes it seem like there are easy answers. This is predictable, formulaic stuff. You don't have to be Miss Cleo to predict everything that's going to happen in this story.

If the movie was just wading in the shallow end of the intelligence pool, it still might have worked as a lightweight comedy, but there are bigger problems. I had seen the film's coming attractions preview at least a dozen times, and it was obvious that the plot revolved around the issue of whether or not Prophet Jack's prediction will come true. The movie, it would seem, can go one of two ways: have Jack be right and show Lanie making up for her mistakes before dying, or have him be wrong and look at how her fear of death is enough to make her reevaluate life. Oh, but there's also a third choice - a much hokier one - that lets the movie have its cake and eat it too. That is the choice Life or Something Like It takes and that choice became obvious to me in (literally) the first ten seconds. All the suspense is totally sucked out of the story because you know the movie will run for 90 minutes, then end with a cheap shot.

As badly conceived as the story is, the movie is made marginally better by the performances. Jolie is always watchable, a real live-wire. Even in a thoroughly wretched scene (such as the one where a drunken Lanie goes on-air and leads a group of picketing bus drivers in a chorus of "I Can't Get No Satisfaction"), Jolie is energetic and unpredictable. I liked Edward Burns even more. As a die-hard Burns fan ever since his debut in 1995's The Brothers McMullen (one of my ten favorite films of all time), I was pleased by his wry, funny performance that elevates a somewhat cliched character. Nevertheless, since Burns is also an accomplished writer, I had to wonder what he thought of the movie's heavy-handed literalness. Then there's Stockard Channing, who has an extended cameo as a Barbara Walters-type interviewer whom Lanie gets the chance to question on TV. Channing's scene requires her character's hard shell to melt, and the actress is truly inspired in it.

In the end, Life or Something Like It works as a chance to see some good actors (Tony Shalhoub included) do their stuff. As a story, it is the kind of thing you maybe catch on video or cable TV, where the expectations are lower and you can pick up a magazine to read during the duller moments. Either way, one thing's for sure: if you had only a week to live, you wouldn't want to waste 100 minutes on this.

( out of four)

Life or Something Like It is rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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