Sony // 2003 // 137 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Diane Wild (Retired) // September 3rd, 2004
"Your whole life's been a dream, and it's only now you're waking up."
My Life Without Me has most of the ingredients of a great film -- wonderful acting, appealing direction, and an interesting and worthy story. Unfortunately, the script doesn't have the emotional truth needed to hold it together.
Ann (Sarah Polley, The Sweet Hereafter) is a 23-year old wife and mother who works nights as a janitor and comes home to a trailer in her perpetually disgruntled mother's back yard. She had her first child at age 17, and is married to the only man she's ever kissed.
The day her chronically unemployed husband Don (Scott Speedman, Felicity) finds a job and begins to dream of a better life, Ann discovers she has terminal cancer and begins to dream of a different life. She chooses to tell no one her diagnosis, refuses a second opinion or treatment, and in a diner scrawls a list: 10 Things to Do Before I Die.
The items range from the sweetly obvious ("tell my daughters I love them every day") to the understandably self-serving ("sleep with another man, just to see what it's like") to the staggeringly selfish ("make someone fall in love with me").
The someone in question is Lee (Mark Ruffalo, You Can Count on Me), who lives in an empty house, hopelessly waiting for the woman who broke his heart -- and took his furniture -- to return. He is drawn to Ann when they meet in a Laundromat, and they predictably become lovers.
She even leaves her children with a stranger (also named Ann) who just moved in next door in order to be with Lee, and then plots to have that neighbor marry Don after her death. That would be another item on her list -- "find Don a new wife."
My Life Without Me is based on a short story by Nancy Kincaid, but writer/director Isabel Coixet made the crucial change of having Ann keep her cancer a secret. And it's precisely that change that is critical to the success or failure of the film. It only works if the viewer can believe that Ann's decision is somehow courageous. I can't.
She doesn't want her daughters to remember her in a hospital, which works as a partial explanation if you accept that this headstrong woman could not refuse treatment if she told her weak-willed husband and mother the secret. Instead, she tells everyone she's suffering from anemia. "I need to feel like I have some kind of control," Ann tells her shy doctor.
She doesn't want her daughters to remember her lingering death. Fine. But I need some rationale for why she doesn't want to spend as much time as possible with them before she dies. Or why she denied them, particularly her husband, the chance to say goodbye when it was obvious the end was very near. She takes control not just by planning her life without her, but also by withholding the one thing her family and friends would most want from her.
Every relationship Ann has is tainted by her deception. In her scenes with the fragile Lee and with her vapid but loving husband, the audience knows she is setting both of them up for heartbreak and confusion. The only truthful relationship she has is with the doctor, who can't look her in the eye when he tells her she's dying, and ends up being more entangled in her life than he would have believed -- in fact, far more than I can believe.
There are many examples of where the emotion of the script almost but doesn't quite work. One of Ann's resolutions is to record a birthday message for each of her daughters until they are 18. In theory, this is a touching idea, and it does make for a touching scene, but in practice, I can't help but feel she's guaranteeing them a lifetime of birthday blues. Luckily the good doctor agrees to distribute them every year on each of the girls' birthdays. I'm still looking for a doctor who will remember my birthday.
At one point, Neighbor-and-Prospective-Wife Ann tells a story about conjoined twins, one a girl, the other a boy. In the real world, they would necessarily be the same gender. So is her story supposed to be genuine but is sabotaged by an error in the script? Or is she lying? That question echoes a problem with the script in general -- a highly emotional scene didn't affect me because of doubts about the character's motivation.
Some of the dialogue is cringe-worthy, particularly some of the romantic moments between Ann and Lee ("I'm in love with you." "Careful, it sounds like a classic case of falling in love." Huh?). A scene with an uncredited Alfred Molino as Ann's imprisoned father, whom she hasn't seen in 10 years, is awkward like badly written lines, not like familial estrangement.
The ending is far too pat and unbelievable. Either we're meant to take it literally, or it represents Ann's wish fulfillment fantasy, but either way, Coixet might as well have ended it with: "...and they all lived happily ever after...except for Ann."
The terrific cast is fully committed to their roles despite the weaknesses of the script. Polley is brilliantly understated, with a natural presence and lack of sentimentality that saves the movie from being maudlin. The male characters are so underwritten that it takes heroic but ultimately doomed efforts by the actors to inject any credibility into them. While Ruffalo is magnetic, as always, and Speedman conveys goofy charm, it's not enough to make the characters anything but convenient pawns in Ann's game. As the idealized lover and husband, they are given little to do but adore Ann.
The supporting actors are equally fine. Deborah Harry (Cop Land) plays Ann's mother with loud despair. The comic relief comes from Amanda Plummer as Ann's thin but diet-obsessed coworker and Maria de Medeiros as a quirky hairdresser with a few too many quirks, including obsessions with Milli Vanilli and braids.
Director Coixet (Things I Never Told You) also operated the camera and creates a deliberately choppy look to the film, with abrupt transitions between scenes as well as shaky handheld shots. Some moments are pure magic, such as the surreal supermarket dance sequence and a nice scene showing Ann and her daughters "pretending the bed is a raft" (which, incidentally, is the name of Kincaid's original short story).
My Life Without Me boasts a basic but solid sound design in Dolby Digital 5.1 and a very sharp DVD transfer with no noticeable flaws. In fact, the transfer of this independent production, unmarred by edge enhancement, far surpasses many higher-budget, higher-grossing DVD releases. The soundtrack is unfortunately not available on CD, but the movie's somber mood is enhanced with gems from Blossom Dearie, Omara Portuondo and Gino Paoli, among others.
A selection of trailers and a Making Of Featurette are the lone extras. If you loved the movie, you might enjoy the behind-the-scenes glimpses captured in the 30-minute featurette. Otherwise, it might bore you to tears. Scenes from the movie act as padding between interviews with the director, producer Esther Garcia -- who also has a bit part as Ann's manicurist -- and much of the cast. There are some genuinely interesting moments when things go wrong with the shoot, but mostly we learn, of course, that everyone was fabulous to work with and that everyone involved believes the movie is inspiring and important.
The cast outshines the script in this disappointing, but not irredeemable, movie. A so-so indie with aspirations of grandeur, it's worth a rental on a rainy evening.
Isabel Coixet is put on probation for an uneven effort. Columbia Tristar is fined for the lackluster slate of extras and the lack of subtitles on this Spanish/Canadian co-production.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Making Of Featurette
* Official Site