Faced with death, Ann is gripped by wildly contradictory urges, including a desire to keep her illness a secret from her family. On one hand, Ann is a self-sacrificing mother, working to line up a new mother for her children and wife for her husband, Don (Scott Speedman). And on the other, Ann is consumed by more selfish urges, including an impulse to really live for the first time. She begins an affair with a recently divorced man (Mark Ruffalo) simply for the experience of sleeping with someone other than her teenage sweetheart Don.
Similar material was handled in the treacly Hollywood Stepmom, but My Life Without Me puts a distinctly art-film gloss on the dying-woman melodrama. The film can be moving, especially when showing the deep but complicated relationships Ann has with other people, from her depressed mother (Deborah Harry) to the neighbor she thinks would be an ideal mother to her two young daughters. But it can also be trite and silly, focusing on artsy little flourishes like a man who plays a melody on partially filled glasses of water on the side of the road or Amanda Plummer as a food-obsessed nut who works with Ann as a university janitor.
It takes a nimble director like Jane Campion in Sweetie or Cedric Klapisch in When the Cat is Away to combine such sharp shifts of light and dark, and Spanish director Isabel Coixet is not up to the task. She wants to be deep but keeps inserting quirky details that don't ring true and which give a contrived, precious quality to the film. Coixet has clearly studied at the foot of the woman-centered, poetic art film, but My Life Without Me feels like a failed attempt to mimic its features. Opens Nov. 14.