Stephen Herek’s poorly-titled would-be romantic comedy has lots of problems–it’s supposed to have had a rather troubled development and shooting history, and that shows–but probably the most irritating thing about “Life or Something Like It” is that the picture seems entirely prefabricated. It’s as though writers John Scott Shepherd–whose initial effort was the by-the-numbers Tim Allen bomb “Joe Somebody” and Dana Stevens–whose previous efforts were the thoroughly undistinguished “Blink,” “City of Angels,” and “For Love of the Game”–had purchased one of those manuals of screenwriting that proliferate nowadays and offer the most banal instructions on how to construct a lamentably formulaic script, and then decided to follow its directives slavishly. First take a supposedly clever premise, hopefully with a topical twist–in this case, that an ambitious Seattle TV reporter is told by a colorfully odd homeless guy, who claims to be a prophet, that she’s going to die in a week (at the very moment she’s trying to prove herself up to a big network promotion). Add a dose of hackneyed romance in the form of a sharp-tongued cameraman–naturally an ex-lover–with whom she’s forced to work. (You can tell they’re destined to announce their love in a frenzied finale, because they spend the first forty minutes of the piece arguing in faux-smart Tracy-Hepburn style.) Insert a contrast whereby the heroine can measure her own choices–here an older network grande dame whose brilliant but regret-filled path the protagonist will have to learn from. Inevitably there’s also a chirpy best buddy, a handsome but vacuous current boyfriend, and some family members with whom she has a difficult relationship–a widowed dad from whom she never felt enough affection and an angry, envious sister. There’s also plenty of quirky lesser figures, a dollop of sentiment (as when the cameraman introduces the gal to his adorable son–he has a good relationship with his ex, you see), and a few totally unbelievable episodes (the most notable when the heroine covers a municipal strike–one of several moments which turn into an ode to some old pop song, a device that’s quickly becoming the most overused and annoying in contemporary film). Then there has to be a big, heart-touching finale: in this case, what will triumph, ambition or true love? The denouement is absurdly contrived and overwrought in a whole variety of bad ways, and it closes with a “twist” that–in terms of the picture’s own premises–is a clumsy cheat.

It probably would have been impossible to save “Life” with all the filmmaking luck in the world, but the result is far more painful than it needed to be. The “Ghost”-like combination of comedy, love and false profundity is an unsavory brew, but it could have been given some punch in more capable hands. Herek’s direction, however, is consistently flat, and it’s further weakened by editing (by Trudy Ship) which hasn’t much flow or rhythm. This accentuates the tonal problems in the script–the jealous sister is presented as just too nasty for the narrative, for example, and the whole encounter between the protagonist and her network idol toward the close is not only poorly written but terribly staged. The cast hasn’t been well-chosen, either. As heroine Lanie Kerrigan, Angelina Jolie, her hair a horrible platinum blond, is strangely colorless, and co-star Edward Burns brings his customary scruffy lack of charm to the supposedly lovable cameraman Pete. You note with dismay that there’s absolutely no chemistry between them, but then they have no chemistry separately, either. Tony Shalhoub makes heavy weather of the sidewalk Prophet Jack; his performance is a virtual catalogue of quirks and phony, halting stabs at charm. Stockard Channing is a fine actress, but she comes on much too harsh and shrill as Deborah Connors, the female Mike Wallace whom Lanie idolizes. Christian Kane gets the empty-headedness of Lanie’s baseball-player boyfriend right, though that hardly constitutes a great accomplishment, and Melissa Errico is properly ditzy as her pal Andrea. James Gammon plays all his scenes as the heroine’s father sitting down and virtually somnolent–an attitude many viewers will share with him.

The end result is that absolutely nothing rings true in the picture. Despite the title, there’s a paucity of real life here, and not much resembling it, either. “Life or Something Like It” is instead like a sitcom gone sour. The fact that it might make you recall many better previous films is about all the entertainment it affords.