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Photograph by Bob Askester

The Funny Hat Is on the Wrong Person: Sarah Polley (left) plays a terminally ill woman, but it's Maria de Medeiros who wears the signifying movie-disease funny hat in 'My Life Without Me.'

Cry, Cry, Cry

Sarah Polley goes gently into that good night in 'My Life Without Me'

By Richard von Busack

HARRY AND LOUISE turned out to be right about that Canadian health system, at least according to unimpeachable evidence presented by My Life Without Me. Sarah Polley, as a British Columbian janitor named Ann, faints, goes to a hospital, is (after a little ultrasound) revealed to have an advanced case of movie cancer. It's the kind you don't fight, because you're dead in three months, looking paler and interesting with every day that you creep closer to the grave. Her doctor gives her a few pills "to fight the nausea" (no, she's not on chemo) and nods gravely when she says she doesn't want any treatment.

Back she goes the trailer where she lives with her husband, Don (Scott Speedman), and two children. Later, Ann draws up a list of all the things she wanted to do with her life: to make some man fall in love with her, to record a series of birthday greetings for her children, have sex with someone other than the only man she ever actually had sex with, namely her husband. Lastly, to find a replacement for herself so that he can be married after she's gone.

Author Nanci Kincaid, who wrote the source short story (from Pretending the Bed Is a Raft), deserves the benefit of the doubt. Her story has been changed substantially, relocated to inexpensive Canada from New Orleans. The twist here is that Ann decides to keep the news of her disease to herself. Director/writer Isabel Coixet, a screenwriter and maker of TV commercials in her native Spain, tricks out this Stepmom/Sweet Novemberish glop as an indie movie, with rough Dogme cutting and a more eclectic soundtrack than it deserves. The hand-held, faux-intimate camerawork doesn't buy it much credibility, though probably Coixet kept jostling director of photography Jean-Claude Larrieu with the theory that a shakey camera equals integrity.

The noteworthy cast is also stuck in limited roles that might have looked stark and sparse on the page but onscreen look like nothing more than a troupe of actors stricken with heartburn. Mark Ruffalo is no cheer as the man Ann has a fling with--he's the Raymond Carver character, divorced, no furniture because the ex took it all, can't talk about it. Amanda Plummer--who once specialized in crazy wenches--plays a slow-witted co-worker who drones on about diets (but eats like a pig), and Maria de Medeiros has a gimmick cameo as a hairdresser who worships Milli Vanilli.

Polley, usually a sane, canny actress, is helpless to dry this material out. Actually, there may not be a way to keep it dry; it's as wet as the locations are, one rain scene after another. My Life Without Me makes a point of holding up Mildred Pierce to contempt as a piece of Hollywood fakery. Does this exercise in "realism" have any more basis in reality? Any less pathos, or manipulative music or--in its patronizingly drawn supporting characters--any less contempt for the working class than Mildred's evil daughter has? There isn't a natural or believable moment in this film.

My Life Without Me (R; 102 min.), directed and written by Isabel Coixet, photographed by Jean-Claude Larrieu and starring Sarah Polley, Mark Ruffalo and Scott Speedman, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the October 9-15, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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