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Maybe a film about a man with a pregnant wife and a rapidly advancing terminal illness doesn’t have to be maudlin beyond belief. Maybe—but nobody’s going to prove it with My Life.
“Dying’s a really hard way to learn about life,” complains Bob Jones, the waning main character in writer/director Bruce Joel Rubin’s feel-bad/feel-good film. (Rubin and producer Jerry Zucker previously teamed for Ghost, another sentimental, death-driven drama). Perhaps it is, but luckily for Bob (a terminal but wisecracking Michael Keaton), it proves an effective one. Nearly every aspect of Bob’s situation is itself a banal cinematic cliché. Foremost among these is the fact that Bob, an ambitious Los Angeles PR man with a BMW, a car phone, and a beautiful wife (Nicole Kidman) that he takes for granted, is a stereotypical Type A American who just isn’t the contemplative type. Bob, it seems, is so obsessed with success that he hasn’t made time to stop and smell the roses—in this case his wife and family.
But as Bob begins to accept the reality of his diagnosis, he goes into self-knowledge overdrive. He’s aided in his quest by another cliché, a wise old Chinese healer to whom his wife sends him in hopes of finding a homeopathic cure for his cancer. “You hold too much anger inside, it poisons you,” the ancient man tells Bob (here sort of an adult stand-in for the karate kid). And what do you know…he’s right! Beleaguered Bob has another thematic evergreen to contend with: Unfinished business with his estranged Old World family back home in Detroit. Bob, we learn, has not only changed his name from Ivanovitch to Jones, but he is nursing a grudge against his gruff, salt-of-the-earth dad, with whom he has never been able to exchange “I love you” ‘s.
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Fortunately, Bob’s also a real cut-up. He’s making an autobiographical home movie for his unborn child to watch after his death; frequent outtakes from his movie are meant to leaven the film’s melodrama with comic relief, but in the end leaven the film’s melodrama with more melodrama. Armed with a camcorder, Bob teaches his nascent offspring such necessaries as how to play basketball, jump-start a car, and cook spaghetti, and delivers shamelessly sentimental monologues such as his heart-to-heart talk about what to do when Mom remarries. For the most part, these moments—which include his reading of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham for the camera—make My Life seem more like some sort of tear-duct experiment gone awry than an actual movie.
As predictable as it is sentimental, the film unfolds as if scriptwriter Rubin concocted its story after conducting an extended series of focus groups with people who count Love Story among their favorite films. Case in point: When My Life opens with Bob as a freckle-faced child telling tall tales, we fear that it’s only a matter of time before someone will say to the protagonist, “You’re still that little boy inside.” (They do, and it doesn’t take long.)
But as death approaches, Keaton’s Bob—along with looking downright robust up until his final days—is as plucky and smartassed as ever. Always the jokester, he plots post-mortem answering machine messages and the like to coax laughs from his equally stoic wife. The film suggests that Bob’s character is at his best in the months prior to his death: Indeed, it seems to be operating under the assumption that impending demise automatically makes dull people interesting and unreflective types sensitive to the nuances of human behavior. God forbid that Bob get his diagnosis, then keel over at an intersection while closing a lucrative deal by phone.
But he is spared that ignominious fate. Instead, Bob delivers a film-long plug for family values. Armed with his Chinese mentor’s reminder that “life is trying to teach you,” he goes on a personal odyssey, visiting his boyhood friends—the ones he made before becoming a bitter adult. (One, surrounded by babies, tells him that the best thing a couple can do for their kids is to love each other so that the little ones will “marinate in love.”) As if this weren’t enough, Bob proceeds to run the self-help gamut, coming to terms with his suppressed rage and even getting in touch with his inner child.
As tidy as an origami pigeon, My Life is guaranteed to resolve its themes without undue strain on the viewer’s imagination. Bob’s unborn child doesn’t know him just as Bob doesn’t know his own family. Bob is headed for the proverbial “out” door, whereas baby is on the way in. Etc., etc., etc. As even his wife notes, Bob’s only significant problem is that he’s taking this death thing all too well.