My Life Without Me Movie Review
The unfortunate woman is 24-year-old Ann (the always appealing Sarah Polley), a struggling wife and mother who learns that a raging cancer will kill her in just a few months. Ann's initial response is to hide the news from her mother (Deborah Harry); very matter-of-factly, she continues to follow that M.O. by telling no one, including her husband Don (Scott Speedman, grinning way too much).
Coixet, who adapted the screenplay from a short story, pulls out all the stops to have us sympathize with young Ann. She's married to the only boy she's ever been with. They have two beautiful girls and live in a tiny (really tiny) trailer in her mom's backyard. Ann is on the nighttime cleaning crew at the local university. Ann's oft-unemployed husband looks toward his new job with weak hopefulness. Her girlhood dreams are gone. The weather's really cold. She and Don even met at the last-ever Nirvana show - please, spare me the tragic synchronicity.
When you have that kind of life, and you're dying, and you have the sweet, emotive puppy dog eyes of Sarah Polley, you can't help but have an audience love you. But, by having Ann keep her secret, Coixet goes further, making her something of a martyr. When Ann sits in an all-night diner, scribbling a list of things she wants to do before she dies, most of her wishes are sickeningly plain. Have a picnic at the beach. Get fake fingernails. It's as if the character were too naïve to fantasize beyond a trip to the beauty salon. It's a humility that many viewers may find understated and humble. Others, myself included, find it insulting to the character and irritating to the audience.
The one fall from grace that Coixet allows is an affair with Lee (Mark Ruffalo), a local drifter and town cliché. He's the lonesome, jilted lover who has no furniture and loves books. Not only does Coixet create a blueprint romantic, she treats him with cinematic tricks that scream "indie." When Lee spends an entire evening staring at Ann while she naps at a Laundromat (oh, how cutely humble), Coixet passes time with a series of fade-outs... and then with a collection of slow dissolves. It's art without purpose - useless in telling the story or creating a mood.
All that being said, it is still a thrill to watch Sarah Polley act. Her face is a haunting, beautiful study in pain and resolution, and her ability to breathe life into Coixet's somewhat clunky scenarios is an achievement. Unfortunately, she's the only actor who can dig out from under the obvious style of the simple life. Harry, who certainly knows how to be tough, sounds stilted; Ruffalo, although daring, plays one note; and, Alfred Molina, one of today's great character actors, is wasted.
One of the executive producers behind My Life Without Me is the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. His recent films, like the exceptional All About My Mother and Talk To Her, take average people, mix them with colorful characters, and dip the whole shebang in a whirlwind of poetry, artistry, and tragedy. Isabel Coixet should have considered such a potent combination when attempting such heavy-duty stuff.
Reviewed at the 2003 Boston Film Festival.
The audience, without us.