Life or Something Like It
The title is meaningless. Life or Something Like It is neither about life nor about anything like life. As far as I can tell, this bubbleheaded drama, which purports to dramatize the importance of getting one’s priorities straight (because no one on her deathbed wishes she had spent more time at work, and blah blah blah), is mostly about slapping together a bunch of clichés — outdated clichés at that — regarding the loneliness of ambitious women. It’s about patching together a motley, ill-fitting cast based primarily on who’s available. And it’s about hoping that audiences will be so fascinated by the extraordinary terrain of headliner Angelina Jolie’s lips that they won’t care how synthetic the whole enterprise really is.
It’s true, Jolie’s strapping physical presence, magnified by the camera’s goggling stare, is riveting: Her exciting oddness lends itself to characters of extreme proportion, whether comic-book, as in ”Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” or crazy, as in ”Girl, Interrupted.” Here, she acts with her big eyes, sweeping her pupils this way and that in exaggerated gestures of calculated flirtatiousness. And it’s true, this ”Life” is not worth taking seriously — not when Jolie plays Lanie Kerrigan, a Seattle TV reporter with a Marilyn Monroe fixation expressed through a wardrobe of sex-kitten suits and a trademark, rain-defying platinum tousle of hair.
Lanie’s burning I’ll-show-them desire is to become a network TV celebrity. And to that end, the appearance of perfection, however empty, is crucial: Lanie’s cute, shallow Seattle Mariner fiancé looks perfect. Her body looks perfect because she works out obsessively, often with her pretty, second-banana colleague, Andrea (Melissa Errico, a superb singer and stage actress who, one hopes, was handsomely paid for this gig). Only Lanie’s even cuter, outspoken cameraman, Pete (Edward Burns, who, one suspects, was told that this is as good as it’s going to get for his limited range), is willing to call Lanie on her crap. And only a sidewalk prophet (Tony Shalhoub, who, one prays, was amused by the opportunity to wear a big black beard) is wake-up call enough for Lanie to take stock: He announces that she’s going to die in a week.
Which may put a crimp in her plans to be the next Barbara Walters. ”Life” is about how one woman deals with the possibility of death — denial, anger, bargaining, the whole Kübler-Rossian process. It’s hardly headline-worthy to report that the obvious attraction between driven, glamorous Lanie and laid-back, down-to-earth Pete (mapped in dully cute bickering in a script by John Scott Shepherd and Dana Stevens) develops into romance. (Director Stephen Herek, who brought us ”Mr. Holland’s Opus,” never settles for subtlety when blinking directional signals will do.)
But for all the cartoonishness, so many simplistic notions and myths about men, women, work, friendship, family, and sex are strewn so lightly throughout that ”Life” cannot — or should not — just be shrugged off. In its very casualness, this dinky entertainment is a dispiriting measure of having come a damn little way, baby. It’s 2002, yet Lanie has evidently missed or ignored Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance in the glossier 1996 cautionary tale of loveless journalistic success, ”Up Close & Personal,” or Sela Ward’s in the superior 1995 TV drama ”Almost Golden,” based on the life of the late TV journalist Jessica Savitch. It’s 2002, yet Lanie’s brutal competitiveness can all be traced back to a mean older sister (Lisa Thornhill) whose childhood name for her gawky sibling was ”Pudge.”
It’s 2002, yet what we’ve got here is a two-dimensional Monroe wannabe whose struggle for liberation doesn’t take place during live coverage of a prison riot (as befell Pfeiffer’s blondie in ”Up Close”). Rather, it occurs during an extended, drunken rendition of ”Satisfaction” that Lanie performs on camera while covering a transit strike (and siding with the striking workers), during which her idiotic antics inspire all of Seattle — picketers, cops, the guys in the control room — to sing along.
In ”Life”’s most fascinating and dangerous moments, Lanie interviews Deborah Connors, a colleague who, while absolutely not Ms. Walters herself, is positively meant to suggest the celebrity journalist who famously gets her subjects to weep. As Deborah, the unerring Stockard Channing steals the movie in her few short scenes — but not just because the actress is so superb. (She’s familiar with the territory, having already played an anchor in ”Up Close.”) Lanie zeros in for the kill on the woman who forged the path Lanie is no longer sure she wants to pursue. She humiliates Deborah, forcing her to talk about the personal happiness she sacrificed for professional success.
The political and emotional crimes committed in this one smug, overheated exchange — upon the characters, upon women, upon all viewers chomping popcorn in theater seats — are as insidious as they are unexceptional: They add up to emotional blackmail, or something like it.