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DUMB AND DUMBER

Cameron Diaz, for one thing, is blameless. She's everything "A Life Less Ordinary" could want and more. She has the sleek body of a goddess, which is a good thing because it's on frequent display in swimsuits and underwear. She has an open sunflower face, not just beautiful to look at but fresh, beaming and totally disarming, too. No matter what the comic or dramatic purpose at any given moment, you want to watch her.

And most importantly, she's a gifted comic actress, a wild, loose-limbed talent in desperate need of the director who can turn her into a '90s Carole Lombard.

Instead, what she got in the romantic comedy "A Life Less Ordinary" are some bright young guys with wonderful ideas and no capacity whatsoever to fulfill them. There will be a lot of that on Friday at area theaters. That describes New Zealander Andrew Niccol and his sci-fi fantasy "Gattaca," too.

Both "A Life Less Ordinary" and "Gattaca" are what happens when brilliant filmmakers with all the cleverness in the world come to Hollywood to put their smarts to work. Things go awry. They're strangers in a strange land with no compass in sight. A report on "A Life Less Ordinary" and "Gattaca":

"A Life Less Ordinary"

It's Screwball Comedy Meets MTV. In other words, it's a wild, fanciful comedy full of runaway heiresses, lovable kidnappers, gunslinging angels and karaoke roadhouses that can turn into MGM-style musical numbers in a trice. It's non-stop whimsy, except that it's so leaden and brutish that it turns into something else.

Call it whamsey. There are times when this thing makes the Coen Brothers' grinding ironies and mock-'30s malarkey in "The Hudsucker Proxy" look downright airy and angelic.

It comes from screenwriter John Hodge and director Danny Boyle, the fellows who previously gave us "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting." No one in his right mind would deny that they're hugely talented. To make a film that goes as wrong as "A Life Less Ordinary," you pretty much have to be. When inept people go wrong, they either do it more gingerly or with much more unintentional comedy.

Take your choice about "A Life Less Ordinary." It's either: A) a Scot and an Irishman in such gooey-eyed love of American movies of the '30s and '40s that they thought they'd give us a surreal '90s version of them; or B) a Scot etc. who thought they'd do a wicked parody of American film fantasy of the '30s and '40s with Hollywood's complicity; or C) a Scot etc. so smart and nasty and full of attitude that they took a ton of Hollywood dough and pulled off an elaborate joke at Hollywood's expense.

I've read their introductory and closing comments in the invaluable book version of the script for "Trainspotting," and believe me I wouldn't dismiss option C out of hand.

It's like this: Cameron Diaz is a gorgeous heiress who likes to lounge by the pool, have lunch and then shoot an apple off the head of the nearest male. When it's her lover the dentist, though, she misses and hits him in the head. Not to worry. He'll be back with no loss to his abilities about 40 minutes later in the film for a little surgery and attempted slap and tickle.

The heiress has a tiff with Daddy (Ian Holm) at about the exact same moment Daddy is beset by a gun-waving janitor he fired. She winds up being semi-kidnapped. When her kidnapper, the janitor, turns out to be too much of a doofus, she takes over management of the crime. They fall in love. Then they have a musical number. Then . . .

All this is watched over by two bomb-planting, gunslinging angels played by Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter who are having a notable lack of success bringing romance to '90s America. Before the film is over, they'll be shot, mangled, run over, etc. all for laughs. The joke is that they both take a licking and keep on ticking, angelwise.

The film is wonderfully stylish to look at. With one exception, the cast is apt and raring to go and more (Diaz is the more). The exception is Ewan McGregor as the lover/kidnapper who is supposed to be an imaginative and engaging shlub but who is so gleamingly outclassed by Diaz that they don't belong in the same country, let alone the same film frame.

If the plot of this thing seems reminiscent of "Excess Baggage," which was Alicia Silverstone's maiden voyage as star/producer, that's because it is. The question that remains unanswered at the end of "A Life Less Ordinary" is: How clever an idea was this when two talented guys have it at the same time as Alicia Silverstone?

Such bafflement can make you feel downright Minnesota. Cameron Diaz deserves better -- much better.

'Gattaca'

The Huxleyan premise of "Gattaca" doesn't quite make it all the way up to brilliant, but it's diabolically clever. It seems that in "the not too distant future," genetic engineering has proceeded at such a pace that prospective parents can virtually order their children the way you'd order meat from a butcher. "The child is still you," say the doctors, "it's just the best of you."

Unless, of course, you want to do it the old-fashioned and much messier way, in which the resultant offspring can have those inherent defects we consider "human."

So society is composed of a super-race and the genetic inferiors born in that haphazard lottery style that produced most of us for the past million years. Gene-ism is commonplace. And why not? As they say in this world, "we now have discrimination down to a science."

With lesser genes, you're doomed at birth to menial jobs, like being a janitor. You are, after all, literally a "de-GENE-rate." With nicely designed genes, you can be an astronaut.

But then, what if a janitor (Ethan Hawke) passionately desires to be an astronaut? In our sloppy world, where meritocracy is still hanging on by its fingernails, he'd have an outside chance. In this world, forget it.

Unless, that is, he trades DNA helixes with a genetic super-specimen who is put out of the astronaut, etc., contention by a crippling accident. So he smuggles all this high-grade genetic stuff -- blood, urine, etc. -- to work so he'll never be detected for the biological fallibility that he is.

Mating, in this world, is microscopically scientific. Just a kiss on the lips can determine from the residue on your lips whether you're hooked up with a suitable partner.

Throw in Gore Vidal doing another of his droll movie turns as the boss and Uma Thurman as love interest.

It should be a fascinating sci-fi movie. It isn't. It's so front-loaded with imagination -- visual and narrative -- that it quickly becomes a bore after 45 minutes.

Put it this way: It's a movie with superior creative genes that does nothing interesting with them. In the great nature vs. nurture debate, "Gattaca," too -- just like that other janitor fantasy "A Life Less Ordinary" -- puts nurture on top.

If the proper care isn't there, neither is the movie.

REVIEW
A Life Less Ordinary

Rating:** 1/2 Cameron Diaz, Ewan McGregor, Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo in a romantic comedy written by John Hodge and directed by Danny Boyle. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters. Gattaca

Rating:** 1/2 Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Gore Vidal in sci-fi vision of a genetically altered future. Written and directed by Andrew Niccol. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.