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    My Life Without Me

    Love and death

    Despite pat characters and a melodrama problem, "My Life Without Me" looks at some fundamental issues of humanity through the eyes of a dying woman who wants to get something out of her final weeks on earth.


    The most affecting thing about "My Life Without Me" is its most basic question. If you knew you only had a couple of months to live, which aspects of life would you take most seriously and which would fall away into irrelevance?

    Written and directed by: Isabel Coixet.
    Cast: Sarah Polley, Scott Speedman, Deborah Harry, Mark Ruffalo, Leonor Watling, Amanda Plummer, Julian Richings, Maria de Medeiros, Jessica Amlee, Kenya Jo Kennedy, Alfred Molina, Sonja Bennett.

    Related links: Official site
    Told that she has terminal cancer at age 23, Ann (the always appealing Sarah Polley of "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Go") doesn't let anybody around her know that she's about to die. Instead she makes a list of "Things to Do Before I Die," and focuses on doing them while she still has time. Some are about her — having married and had her first child at 17, she wants to sleep with another man to find out what it's like. She'd also like to get fake nails. Some are about her loved ones — to record annual birthday greetings for her daughters through age 18, and "find Don a new wife who the girls will like."

    The highlights of the film come when Ann reflects on life from her two perspectives — as a working-class mom and as a dying working-class mom. Walking past aisles full of consumer goods that she never could afford on her night janitor's salary, she notes how little they mean when you're not going to live to use them. Yet, she knows that her daughters will continue singing commercial jingles and lusting for the material products they extol when she, with her heightened sense of focus, is not there to guide them. The movie is best when it's addressing big ideas in small, daily-life ways.

    My Life Without Me  
    The film's weak point is in its rather one-dimensional characters. Every one of the characters is pretty nearly perfect. Deborah Harry as the mom is perfectly cranky, but the others are all unrealistically good. Writer-director Isabel Coixet struggled to give Ann's two daughters even the slightest imperfection — one of them gives the other one a backhanded slight once or twice. And to find a perfect new wife for Don is no problem — one moves in next door (played by the appealing Leonor Watling, previously seen in a coma in Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her") shortly after Ann's diagnosis.

    Male writers are often judged on their ability or inability to "write women," and the converse is true here. The film's feminine sensibility is so pervasive that one doubts Coixet's ability to write male characters. Hubby Don ("Felicity" hunk Scott Speedman) is affectionate, sexy, supportive, and only momentarily unemployed after the local factory shuts down. And in the plot element that works least, Ann meets her fling interest, Lee (mediocre-movie veteran Mark Ruffalo), in a laundromat. He's perfect too, of course. The problem is that Ann has put two goals on her list that sound connected but aren't — one is to sleep with another man besides her husband and the other is to make someone (Lee, naturally) fall in love with her. Why she needs to spend her last remaining family time breaking some stranger's heart is unclear when her initial goal is just to see what another man is like. And Lee's sobbing reaction when it's all over is sheer melodrama that doesn't ring true. It's a cheap romance-novel windup.

    Still, despite its side issues, "My Life Without Me" has a core that's strong. We can imagine ourselves in Ann's place and learn something from her perspective about what is truly important in life when every day is precious. Having spent all of her young life working and raising children, she realizes that she now faces some primal questions.

    "Thinking. You're not used to thinking," she says. "All the things they talk about in the books you haven't read — this is you."

    SEPTEMBER 30, 2003

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