For those who didn't see "Clean and Sober," Michael Keaton's excellent dramatic performance in "My Life" may come as a surprise. For those who did see the earlier film, this one simply verifies that Keaton is one of our most interesting actors, continuing to surprise us with the choices he makes.
In "My Life," he plays a terminally ill Los Angeles adman whose wife (Nicole Kidman) is pregnant with their first child.
Angry that his life is about to be cut short, Keaton decides to make a home video for his unborn child, talking into the camera about life's lessons and carrying it with him everywhere he goes.
As the film progresses, however, we learn that he has internalized quite a bit of anger, most of it directed at his blue-collar, immigrant parents and the life he left behind in Detroit when he went off in search of a rich, yuppie world in Los Angeles.
The irony of his ferocious desire to make his child aware of his heritage, while Keaton himself denies his own, is lost on him, of course. And it doesn't help that he's in the midst of denial concerning his own illness.
Ultimately, he goes on a literal journey toward self-awareness. With encouragement from his wife and psychobabble advice from a Chinese faith healer (Oscar-winner Haing S. Ngor of "The Killing Fields"), Keaton eventually reconciles with his family and comes to terms with his fate.
In many ways, "My Life" is a one-man show for Keaton, as he displays a variety of emotions, shifts from comedy to drama to tragedy, and generally gets to show off his range as an actor, portraying a complex, emotionally unsteady human being. And he is terrific, very convincing and sympathetic as a man forced to confront his demons.
Kidman is also very good, warmer than many of her screen portrayals have allowed her to be, and the supporting players are all well cast.
Another plus is Bruce Joel Rubin's handling of his original material. Best known as the screenwriter of "Ghost," Rubin here both writes and makes his directing debut. And coming on the heels of "Ghost," one might expect "My Life" to wallow in sentimentality and jerk the tears from the audience.
There's no question that the audience will well up with tears but most of them are honestly earned, as Rubin takes a matter-of-fact approach to the details of Keaton's life, the various stages of grief, dealing with doctors and co-workers and family, etc. And the device of Keaton talking directly into a video camera from time to time works very well.
Where Rubin tends to fall down is with the four scenes that involve Ngor, the faith healer. There is a mystical quality to these moments that does not permeate the rest of the film, so that edgy realism gives way to vague spiritualism as Keaton sees the "bright light" that is so often associated with a brush with death and listens to the philosophical musings of Ngor. Not that Ngor's advice isn't sound, but the context here seems at odds with the rest of the film.
There is no denying, however, that Keaton makes all of this compelling. The film is, as Rubin is fond of saying in interviews, a "life-affirming" film and has something to say about how we should view our brief stay on the planet.
"My Life" is rated PG-13 for profanity and brief male nudity.