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‘My Life’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 12, 1993

As Michael Keaton primps and fumbles with the video camera facing him, you realize he's about to make a home video. You figure it's a lark for his family and friends. You also figure this will be a comedy, especially when the camera flops sideways, thanks to a loosely affixed tripod. You have no idea what "My Life" is about to do to you.

Bruce Joel Rubin's latest movie accelerates so rapidly into the serious, you're left dry-mouthed and blown away. You're pulled in deeper and deeper until -- by the anguishing conclusion -- you're hanging on for dear life, trying to maintain dignity, trying to keep from falling apart.

It's hard to relate a story that progresses from touching revelation to revelation, without spoiling it. (Perhaps you should skip this review and head straight for the movie, well-stocked with handkerchiefs.) You learn Keaton's home movie is directed at someone specific when he shows old film footage of himself as a boy going down a slide with his brother. This, he tells the unidentified listener, is "your Uncle Paul." Now you realize the movie is being made for an unborn baby -- Keaton's.

More important, you also learn that Keaton, a public relations man married to Nicole Kidman, has inoperable cancer. This is a video for the child he will never know.

On the face of it, "My Life" sounds like an emotional cheap shot, a tearjerking porno flick for shameless snivelers. But it's bigger than that. Rubin, who wrote and directed this, has spiritual things in mind. It's clear that his first scripts, "Ghost" and "Jacob's Ladder," were working sketches towards this movie. Now in control of his story -- as a first-time director -- he gets to reap what he previously had to sow. For a commercial movie, "My Life" provides an extraordinarily evocative sense of the abyss beyond this life.

During his earthly journey, from healthy young man to mature accepter of his fate, via anger and denial, Keaton begins a second dialogue with everyone -- and everything -- in his life: himself, his wife, his work associates and his estranged Ukrainian family. Along the way, he becomes very close to Haing S. Ngor, a spiritual healer whom Keaton discounts at first but eventually bonds with.

He also reexamines his childhood, a time when he offered solitary prayers to stars and, on one particular afternoon, fully expected God would honor his request to produce a three-ring circus in his backyard -- after school, of course.

It's impossible to know if Rubin saw Ross McElwee's brilliant documentary diary, "Time Indefinite." But "Life" mirrors the same structure: a home video in which the video-maker is reunited with an estranged family, learns deep truths about himself and anticipates the birth of a son. It doesn't matter whether Rubin came up with this idea on his own, or borrowed from McElwee. The effect is devastating just the same.

"My Life" is not free of the Hollywood stuff, with formulaic explanations for human behavior and extremely heavyhanded (although not unaffecting) metaphors about the circuses and roller-coasters of life. But Rubin's movie has so many real concerns about life and death, these weaknesses are easily forgotten.

Thanks to Keaton, who does his best work since "Clean and Sober," the experience is roundly touching. Flitting brilliantly -- almost torturously -- between humor and horror, he keeps you laughing and choking all the way to the bitter end.

After the first session with Ngor, who tells the patient he needs to release the bitterness and anger in his life, Keaton leaves the office in a huff. "He told me how angry I was, that son of a bitch," he sputters to Kidman.

When he makes a cross-country journey to visit his lower-middle-class family, Keaton and Kidman stare wordlessly at the welcoming party of old-world, portly relatives. "Two words," mutters Keaton to his wife. "Weight Watchers."

This is the kind of bittersweet, dire-affliction performance that always bowls over the Motion Picture Academy voters. But this time, assuming they nominate the picture, even they will be right.

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