Ann (Sarah Polley) is a young wife and mother who lives with her family in a trailer in her mother’s backyard. At nights she works as a cleaner while her husband is looking for work. Life for Ann as a young mother is tough and tiring yet also happy and full of love – in contrast to her mother (Debbie Harry, aka Blondie) who cannot forgive Ann’s imprisoned father for abandoning them, nor can she forgive the rest of the world for her general lot. Ann is suddenly admitted to hospital with stomach cramps only to be told that she has cancer of the uterus, and has just two months to live. She decides not to tell her family, explaining her symptoms as anaemia, and writes a list of the things she must do to make the most of the time she has left.
So, we’ve sort of been here before then really. There was Michael Keaton in My Life as a man who discovers he has months to live and makes videos for his unborn son. Or my particular favourite is the Simpsons episode "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish" where Homer eats poisoned Blowfish and, after being told he has 24 hours to live, makes a list of things to do before he dies. But this time we have a film produced by Pedro Almodovar, a Spanish/ Canadian co-production, filmed in an arty/ indie style for the arty/ indie crowd.
It’s filmed creatively and thoughtfully by Isabel Coixet, who also adapted the screenplay from Nanci Kincaid’s short story. Her camera cuts between majestic pans and scans of desolate urban settings to shaky close-ups of the characters. There are occasional Amelie-esque quirky moments, cutting to short irrelevant flashbacks or fantasy sequences to add to the film’s montage quality.
However (and I’m sorry to say there is a ‘however’), somehow, it just doesn’t quite work. Everything is in place for this to live up to its tagline, and it pushes all the right buttons, yet you can almost see and feel them being pushed. Take the casting for example. There is little faulting Sarah Polley in the lead role – she looks and acts the part, as does Debby Harry. But Ann’s daughters are a little too cute and toothsome, and her husband Don (Scott Speedman) looks like a character from a Levi’s advert. It never quite convinces as a real family.
Two of the things on Ann’s list are ‘Make love with other men to see what it’s like’ and ‘make someone fall in love with me’. Lee (Mark Ruffalo) is to be the object to satisfy these desires. You can see why Isabel Coixet cast Ruffalo: he has the exact dark, brooding, handsome stranger with emotional depth look about him. But he fits the brief too well; there is nothing left for the imagination to fill in. They meet in the Laundromat, Ann falls asleep and Lee watches over her all night, gives her his coat and leaves his number in a copy of Middlemarch. She decides to call round to his flat: it is entirely unfurnished due to a break-up that emotional Lee hasn’t let himself get over, and they sit on a stack of poetry books that deep, sensitive Lee reads. As with the family scenes, despite the inventive camera work and naturalistic acting, it is too dreamy and unrealistic.
Lee’s character is also problematic. Once Ann has slept with Lee and ticked her ‘things to do’ list she goes back to begin a relationship with him, never letting on about her illness or the truth of her family situation. She is doing this to Lee, a man who lives in a gutted flat in memory of an ex and reads depressing poetry to wile away the lonely nights. We know, and Ann should know, that the shock he’ll get in a couple of months will probably be enough to finish him off. But the film does not acknowledge or deal with any of this. Later we have a scene with Ann and Don in bed, declaring their genuine love for each other. The next scene however is of Ann and Lee in the honeymoon getting-to-know-you period of their relationship, but again this is completely fine. She just loves both of them, so what’s the problem? That approaching death would clarify what is truly important in life, perhaps, prompting Ann to spend her precious remaining days with her daughters and husband rather than trying out a ‘new relationship’?
The final sequence shows the characters listening to the tapes she recorded for each of them. The last one is Lee being told, ‘my darling Lee… I fell in love with you’. In reality this character would next be seen swaying slowly from the light fitting, but Ann posthumously tells him to cheer up and paint the flat, so he does. Another thing on her list was to find a wife for Don who the children like – conveniently, a pretty (but deep) nurse has just moved in next door, and in the final montage we see this new family packing up for a happy vacation. We also see Ann’s cynical-for-50-years mother out enjoying a laugh and a flirt in a bar. So everything works out OK for everyone, and the film ends on a suitably life-affirming note.
It’s almost guaranteed though that it will be some people’s ‘favourite film’- the Spanish connection, the eclectic soundtrack, its artistic construction and the female perspective all add up to a kind of Dirty Dancing for the sensitive World Cinema fan. And this DVD contains a lot for them, including a making of documentary, a Q & A with the very likeable Isabel Coixet, a music video and interviews with the cast. It is therefore tough to criticise because the film tries hard but just doesn’t achieve what it should do. There is a certain level of self-searching melancholia throughout, but despite wanting to move to a deeper level of philosophical exploration, it essentially just skims across the surface and keeps pushing the buttons.