Death Be Not Smart

Bob gets sick and then dies.
That's the entire plot of My Life reduced to its essential elements. Director-screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (the man who wrote Ghost) pads it with some forced introspection and manipulative hand-wringing. Robert and Gail Jones are expecting their first child when they discover that Robert has cancer and probably won't live to see their new baby. He decides to make a video of his life as a gift to his child, and along the way simultaneously embarks upon one of those journeys of self-discovery that are all the rage in Hollywood these days. If you're looking for suspense, look somewhere else.

Ghost was a dumb movie but at least it knew its limitations and confined itself to telling its pathetic little story with few artistic pretensions. In so doing, the picture managed to be mildly diverting for people who find Melrose Place intellectually challenging. With My Life, unfortunately, Rubin thinks he's got something profound to tell us about the meaning of life and the human condition. And, in retrospect, perhaps he does: no plot is too lame or too mawkish to get produced.

Which is not to say that My Life is all bad. In fact, there's some impressively snappy dialogue and an occasional genuine insight or two. And it's got Michael Keaton, who had been making a name for himself as a passable dramatic actor (Clean and Sober, Pacific Heights) before the lure of the cape and cowl got the best of him. Keaton's performance here, while not much of a revelation, is solid. And, oddly enough, that may be part of My Life's problem.

As mindless as it was, Ghost was a huge commercial success, due in no small part to Patrick Swayze's presence. Dumb as a rock and half as expressive, Swayze was the perfect star for such a no-brainer of a film. Completely non-threatening. No glimmer of intelligence to distract you from the basic sentimental appeal. Keaton, on the other hand, is a bright guy who can act. He's too smart to be mired in this kind of mush. It makes you uneasy watching him in material for which he's clearly overmatched.

The film's best moments all involve either Keaton or the baby or both. Keaton walks into a wall here, Keaton bonks his wife with the camcorder there. Was it scripted or is the dramatic actor resorting to slapstick because he doesn't know what else to do with lame dialogue such as, "Dying's a really hard way to learn about life"?

The baby does all the standard cute baby things, including puking twice (once on Keaton, once on himself). And the rest of the cast, led by Nicole Kidman, fresh from her painfully inept appearance in Malice, are even less cerebral.

There are a few touching scenes, such as when Keaton's estranged father shaves his debilitated son's face after the cancer has left him too weak to hoist a razor. But the videotape footage, interspersed throughout the film, frequently suffers from heavy-handed self-consciousness or succumbs to the terminal cutes. Both as writer and director, Rubin never knows when to go for the jugular and when to let up, and so much of the movie feels contrived that it drowns whatever spark Keaton manages to throw off.

Early on, when Bob is just starting to digest the bad news about his condition, he loses his temper. "Son of a bitch!" he fumes. "It's ridiculous. I don't have time for this!"

Listen to him. It's the truest statement My Life makes.

 
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