The story of a beautiful young woman suffering from cancer and finding a new lease of life before she dies has been reincarnated so many times on screen (Love Story, Terms of Endearment, and countless US made-for-TV films) that it’s hard to conceive that there would be anything new to add to this exhausted plot-line. Spanish writer/director Isabel Coixet doesn’t seem to think so though, and clever casting goes a long way in disguising the fact that My Life Without Me is every bit as calculated as the sentimental Hollywood weepies the film tries so hard to distance itself from.
Sarah Polley, star of The Sweet Hereafter and Go, takes the role of Ann, a working class mother of two who lives with her unemployed husband (Scott Speedman) in a trailer. Forced to think about her life for the first time when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer, she decides to make a list of all the things she wants to do before she dies. This includes getting a new haircut, making birthday messages for her daughters, finding her husband a new wife and making love to another man.
There is a refreshing naturalism to Polley’s performance and she is supported by a talented cast. It’s just a shame that the likes of Speedman and Mark Ruffalo, as the two men in Ann’s life, have very little to do with their roles. Debbie Harry shines as Ann’s mother, a lonely embittered woman who has only ever been disappointed by life. Alfred Molina also manages to impress in his one scene as Ann’s jailed father.
Produced by Oscar-winning director Pedro Almodovar, My Life Without Me has philosophical musings, quirky characters, a great soundtrack and even a dance sequence, but lacks the charm to seduce and move the viewer. The film tries so hard to be profound that the pseudo-poetic dialogue ends up feeling pretentious and the voiceover contrived.
It is difficult to understand why a devoted mother with such a great husband would complicate the last two months of her life by having an affair with a complete stranger even if he is played by Ruffalo. It is even harder to fathom Ann’s response to her own death. When she is told by her doctor (who cannot even look her in the eye) that she is going to die, she reacts by asking for a piece of candy. Ann takes the news with a stoic calmness, deciding to spare her family by telling them it is anaemia. Not once does she express any anger, bitterness or grief. The story goes on to fall neatly into place and apart from the odd stomachache, the film glosses over the reality of Ann’s physical suffering.
Coixet attempts to inject an undercurrent of eccentricity by introducing characters such as Amanda Plummer (a friend of Ann’s who is fixated with food) and Maria de Mederios (a Milli Vanilli obsessed hairdresser). But they seem to belong to an entirely different film altogether, and by the end the only tears that you’ll be shedding will be over the talent which has gone to waste.