Compelling 'My Life' transcends the usual tear-jerker formula

November 12, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Bruce Joel Rubin is the Jack Kevorkian of screenwriters: he's Script Doctor Death.

After "Ghost" and "Jacob's Ladder," which he wrote and did not direct, here's "My Life," which he both wrote and directed. Unsurprisingly, it's another study of a man teetering on the lip of eternity.

To Rubin, death is the last great adventure, a voyage along a theme park River Styx threaded through a Disneyfied Jungle Land: the rubber-nosed hippo of extinction sticks its snout out of the chlorinated brine and Rubin the safari guide drives it away with a cylinderful of blanks and an ironic quip for the passengers. Phony, but somehow reassuring. That's entertainment.

The life of the title belongs to Bob Jones (Michael Keaton), born Robert Ivanovich, who is about 35, founder of a wildly successful Los Angeles public relations firm, husband to a beautiful, passionate young woman (Nicole Kidman) and soon to be father. By the time the movie opens, he's gotten the worst news: The crab is eating him from the inside out, following the old kidney-spleen-brain highway. He's got maybe three months, an aching shame since the baby isn't due for six.

The philosophic gist of the movie -- and of all Rubin's work -- is that Bob must come to terms with his coming demise and accept it as "natural," putting aside his anger. To do this, he must face himself first and his family second; he must plumb the depths of his own trench of secrets. You can guess at the materials: Lots of noble suffering, lots of snappy one-liners in the face of the ultimate, lots of slobbery last-second bonding. In fact, when I mentioned this plot to my daughter in vain hopes of getting her to go to a sneak with me, she said, in that particularly snippy tone that seems to be genetically programmed to click in around the 13th year, "Oh, and he Becomes A Better Man for it, right? He Learns About Himself. No thanks."

Wow, did she get that one right! But what she didn't get right was a more elemental truth: that no matter how hackneyed an idea, a truly professional writer can get it to transcend its own formula, which is "My Life's" singular virtue. It's not nearly as "heavy" as Rubin would like it to be and in some cases it's shamelessly manipulative, but the guy is a master craftsman and he knows how to propel it along in explosive bursts, how to modulate the humor and the pathos, just how far to idealize his hero/victim.

The central gimmick is a kind of video letter that Keaton composes for his unborn child, which becomes gender specific when sonograms reveal the child's sex as masculine. Thus in short takes, Keaton issues a kind of Dad's Real Life Guide to Growing Up Male -- tips on shaving, sex, dating, dressing, helpful info of the type that dads never give their sons because by the time the sons are old enough to understand, they think dad is a dork from Mars. It takes full advantage of Keaton's extreme likability; he's able to sell himself to the lens of the camera without any artifice. No Styrofoam chest muscles here, he's just a man whose face is being rubbed raw in the reality of death, which frees him to speak a kind of truth.

Another impressive script ploy forces Bob Jones to face the gushy, dreary Russian immigrant family that spawned him and that he turned his back on some years back in working-class Detroit. It's a nice stroke that Rubin so vividly roots the family to a place and a unique culture and that he has the guts to represent Bob's flight from both as a pathological flaw that must be overcome. Movingly at the end, Bob comes to terms with the dark and glowering man who is his father. It's a trite chord -- the same one was played on a tambourine in "Field of Dreams" -- but Rubin brings it off.

Alas, what doesn't work in the film is a sense of character arc. In this sense, I was amazed to read in Premiere that Rubin envisioned the story as an account of a rancid man who finds his humanity as death approaches. But nothing in the movie LTC supports this interpretation: perhaps it's that Keaton is so likable or that scenes of him sharking his way through the L.A. PR scene were cut, but the truth is, he doesn't seem much changed at the end of the film.

Still, "My Life" manages now and then to get a few of those itchy-scratchy, gawd-awful embarrassing deals called "feelings" into itself, unashamedly and movingly. I doubt death is this pretty -- my father's certainly wasn't, and I doubt your father's was -- but the movie nevertheless compels.

"My Life"

Starring Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman

Directed by Bruce Joel Rubin

Released by Columbia

Rated PG-13

***

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