Detroit, Michigan, 1963: Bob Ivanovich, a young son of Ukrainian-American parents, prays one night for a circus in his backyard the next day after school. After school the next day, he runs home eagerly, followed by his friends. To his disappointment, no circus awaits. Angrily, Bob retreats to the closet in his room, his personal retreat space.
Bob has shunned his Ukrainian-born parents for their immigrant ways and decided to move away from his family in Detroit. Thirty years later, Bob Jones (Michael Keaton) now runs a Los Angeles public relations firm. He is happily married to Gail (Nicole Kidman), who is pregnant with their first child. Bob is horrified to learn that he has been diagnosed with a terminal form of kidney cancer and might not live to see their baby born.
Bob begins to make home movies, to immortalize himself, to be shown after his death to his son, so he'll know who his father was, showing him how to cook spaghetti, how to drive, etc. He also begins to visit a Chinese healer named Mr. Ho (Haing S. Ngor), who urges him to listen to his heart, which is calling him to forgive, and that life is always giving him invitations if he would just listen. At his wife's urging, they fly to his hometown of Detroit to attend a traditional Ukrainian wedding of his brother Paul (Bradley Whitford). While in the area, Bob visits his childhood home. Also while there, they attempt to mend fences with his estranged family, which does not go well. Bob criticizes his brother for not moving to California like he did, and his father (Michael Constantine) resents Bob's moving thousands of miles away and changing his name.
Bob returns to California with a heavy heart, sadly saying to his wife, "This is my last trip home." During a visit with Mr. Ho, he advises Bob to go into his heart "soon." Bob teaches his son by camera how to shave, play basketball, and start a car by jumper cable. He also confronts a childhood fear by finally riding a formidable roller coaster. During the ride, a young companion urges him to let go of the railing as the descent begins, but Bob firmly holds on. (A metaphor of his fear of letting go of life.) He is living on borrowed time—beyond the date the doctors gave him, as he says to his wife after getting off the coaster, "Today is D-Day. Death Day. I was supposed to be dead by today."
Gail's contractions increase, and soon she is in the hospital, to give birth to their baby. Bob and Gail have a happy time with their newborn, but soon Bob's condition worsens, now that the cancer has reached his brain. Hospice care is arranged for Bob. Bob makes a final visit to Mr. Ho, and asks him what the light is he keeps seeing. Mr. Ho replies it is "the life of the self" and urges him to get his "house in order (life and personal affairs)."
A hospice nurse, Theresa (Queen Latifah), moves in to help, but Bob's health continues to fail. Bob and Gail finally call his family to inform them of what's going on. Bob's family comes west for the first time to visit. Bob makes peace with his family at last. Bob's childhood wish is finally granted by a circus in the backyard.
As his father shaves him, Bob shows that he has at last made peace by telling his father he loves him. Bob finally comes to terms with his life as he dies peacefully, surrounded by the loving, supportive bosom of his family. Next is shown Bob on a metaphysical roller coaster, this time letting go of the railing, raising his arms freely in the air this time, metaphorically letting go of life, and finally enjoying the ride of life. Bob rides toward a beautiful, shining, ethereal light (presumably heaven). A year later, his son and wife watch him on video, as he reads Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham to him.
The film received mixed reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes it has an approval rating of 42% based on reviews from 24 critics. Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade A on scale of A to F.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 2.5/4 and wrote: "My Life should be a more rigorous and single-minded film; maybe it started that way, before getting spoonfuls of honey to make the medicine go down."