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‘My Life’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 12, 1993

Bruce Joel Rubin, the death-obsessed screenwriter turned director of "My Life," is basically Hollywood's answer to Jack Kevorkian. For the most part, his morbidly romantic stories are guidebooks to the afterlife and his heroes are dead or dying. "My Life," in fact, can be seen as the lugubrious last chapter of a trilogy that began with the spiritual love story "Ghost" and continued with the operating-table fantasy "Jacob's Ladder."

"My Life" is, however, something of a departure because the protagonist has only just started to deteriorate when the film opens. The premise, an enormously poignant one, is guaranteed to loose a flood of tears: A cancer patient, Bob Jones (Michael Keaton), videotapes an autobiography for his unborn baby and in the process realizes that he doesn't really know himself at all. It is the first step in a prosaic tragicomic journey toward what a spiritualist (Haing S. Ngor) calls "the light of self, source of all healing."

We go through everything with Bob -- from the five stages of grief described by author Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to the light-flooded doorstep of the afterlife. Bob has already gotten his diagnosis and picked up his camera when the film opens. And like documentarian Rod McElwee in "Sherman's March," he initially uses it to shield himself against his feelings. These are especially powerful when it comes to his Ukrainian-born parents, whom he has shunned for their immigrant ways.

Bob's hugely pregnant and loving wife (Nicole Kidman, completely convincing as this nurturing Madonna) supports him in his cosmic quest for inner peace. Bob also seeks assistance from the Big Guy Upstairs. And on and on and on. Rubin proves throughout that he is shamelessly manipulative whether holding pen or camera.

In one scene, the father he once scorned shaves Bob, who has lost control of his motor functions after the cancer spread to his brain. And while this lower-middle-class scrap metal dealer looks to have invested his last two nickels in the business, he fulfills Bob's boyhood dream by bringing a circus to his back yard.

The movie's at its best when Bob turns the camera on himself to instruct his unborn son on making pasta, shooting hoops, shaving and jumper cable use. Keaton, whose impressively wide range is showcased here, brings a light, loving touch to these vignettes. All the same, they are meant to pluck "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" on our poor, sore heartstrings. Oh well. A good cry never hurt anyone.

"My Life" is rated PG-13 for the intensity of its subject matter.

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