Writer Bruce Joel Rubin’s fascination with death knows no temporal bounds. It reached back from the grave in “Ghost” and struck out into the future in “Jacob’s Ladder.” “My Life,” his directorial debut, is his most cozy brush with the final journey. It’s an emotional, spiritual odyssey centered on a man confronting terminal cancer and, coincidentally, the birth of his first child.
The sincere, often touching story tugs shamelessly at the heartstrings. Nonetheless, its subject matter will prove a daunting marketing challenge. It’s a film in dire need of tender loving care, slow nurturing and critical kudos to earn a place in the mainstream.
The writer/director’s conceit is a videotape being prepared by Bob Jones (Michael Keaton) for his unborn child. Jones has been diagnosed with inoperative cancer, and his doctor doubts he will live to see the arrival of the infant. So he sits in front of the camera to explain some pretty banal things, like how to walk cool, which way to hold a razor and tips on sports.
This is, thankfully, the jumping-off point for considerably weightier issues. Rubin is a confirmed believer that people ought to put their houses in order prior to that final breath. Jones experiences the emotions often associated with the confrontation of death — disbelief, anger and acceptance.
Of particular interest to the filmmaker is the opportunity for the character — a workaholic — to step back and get some perspective. His wife (Nicole Kidman) gently cajoles him into seeing a healer (Haing Ngor), and at these sessions he begins to get in touch with what’s really ailing him: his roots.
At first the prospect that he cannot remember his youth is amusing. However, once he begins to unblock the past, we discover that his seething hostility toward his father (Michael Constantine) was so intense, changing his name was his least vengeful act. The memory of a schoolboy dream is so vivid and painful for him that you have to believe it literally ate away at his insides.
There’s nothing essentially wrong with the manipulative nature of “My Life.” Rubin’s inexperience as a director, however, makes his footprints a lot more obvious than those of others who have walked down this road before.
Keaton as Jones/Ivanovich gives a textured performance that goes a long way toward smoothing the narrative’s rough edges. His work is a reminder of his range and versatility. He is unquestionably a natural comic, but he can also deliver the goods without cracking when it comes time to bring on the heavy drama.
Essentially the story is at the service of Keaton’s character, but it allows for moving supporting turns. Kidman, Ngor, Constantine and Bradley Whitford all register with emotional work. Rubin orchestrates a level of concern and pain in the performances that seems real and is easily accessible.
Technical contributions are simple and effective. John Barry’s score may be a dot too obvious, but this is a minor quibble in a generally impressive directorial debut.
While the entire production teeters on the corny and the cliched and falls into that trap from time to time, more often it hits a sensitive nerve and makes us stop, think and feel.