Main cast: Sarah Polley (Ann), Scott Speedman (Don), Deborah Harry (Ann’s Mother), Mark Ruffalo (Lee), Leonor Watling (Ann), Amanda Plummer (Laurie), Julian Richings (Dr Thompson), Maria de Medeiros (Hairdresser), Jessica Amlee (Penny), Kenya Jo Kennedy (Patsy), Alfred Molina (Ann’s Father), and Sonja Bennett (Sarah)
Director: Isabel Coixet
Our heroine Ann is 23. She married the only man she fell in love and slept with, Don, when she was 17 and pregnant. Today, she is a janitor at an university. She and Don live with their daughters Patsy and Penny in a trailer at the backyard of her mother’s house. Don is always having a problem at remaining employed, Ann’s mother makes cynicism an artform (she tells her grandchildren stories of Joan Crawford before bedtime), and Ann has not seen her father since he went to prison ten years ago. But somehow she feels that she is happy, her life is better than it could have been… until she is diagnosed with ovarian cancer and has only about two months more to live.
Instead of telling Don and her mother about this, Ann decides to keep this to herself and tells them that she has anemia. Won’t they be glad by her selfless actions? She sets out to make a list of things to do before she dies. Among these things, she wants to get a new hairstyle and eat and talk and smoke as much as she wants. She also wants to record a birthday message for her daughters for every year until they are eighteen, find Don a suitable new wife (the neighbor, also named Ann, is a good candidate), and see her father one more time. And here’s the tricky one – she wants to sleep with another man just to see what it feels like, which is still okay with me, and she wants to make that man fall in love with her, which is not at all okay with me. This man in question is Lee, a loner and rather socially inept man who listens to tapes his sister records and mails to him as he travels across the country doing landscape surveys for construction companies.
Compared to Scott Speedman’s ineffectual if pleasant portrayal of the well-meaning but unreliable Don, Mark Ruffalo’s Lee is so intense and broody that Lee is like romanticism personified. The scene where he weeps as he watches Ann leave in Don’s car only makes me realize how selfish Ann is. I try to tell myself that when one is dying, maybe it’s okay to be brutally selfish for once, especially as Ann has been taking care of her family while sacrificing her wants and dreams for so long, but Mr Ruffalo’s heartbreaking portrayal of Lee the bookworm loner who lives in an unpainted apartment with no furniture is not making it easy for me to warm up to Ann.
Sarah Polley tries valiantly to portray Ann without resorting to maudlin sentimentalism and to a point, she succeeds. Her Ann can be very cynical and witty at the same time, and Ann never wants anyone’s sympathy. Her only crime is to want to be selfish and get away with breaking a man’s heart. She and her doctor play each off wonderfully, with Dr Thompson slowly learning to look at a terminally ill patient’s eyes to deliver the bad news thanks to Ann’s goading and prodding. Deborah Harry’s portrayal of Ann’s mother is a little bit more problematic as while she has some good lines, Ann’s mother is never fully fleshed out to be a consistent character. I never know why Ann’s father is in prison or why Ann and her mother have problems.
But the script does not do the cast any favors. The characters sometimes make speeches instead of speaking spontaneously. Polley’s cool and reserved Ann and Ruffalo’s beautifully brooding Lee are watchable, but come on, this movie is director and screenwriter Isabel Coixet’s own take on The Bridges of Madison County, just add cancer. The movie is awashed with wretched sentimentalism in its final half hour, making sweeping and grandiose greeting card statements like realizing one’s dreams, being strong, and such. The problem is, Ann is never written to be this wise, so her making these statements are out of character for her.
As a chick-flick movie masquerading as indie arty movie, My Life without Me can be a pretty good embodiment of the female romantic fantasy. Lee is really a lovelorn, romantic fool that it is hard not to be moved by his and Ann’s adulterous love affair, especially when Lee’s heart is on his sleeves, breaking, and Ann is trying hard not to see the cracks on the heart handed to her for her to break.
Its dip into overblown sentimentalism towards the end and some wooden and stilted dialogues aside, this one is a decent movie thanks to an above average cast.