Joe Gideon is a theater director and choreographer trying to balance staging his latest Broadway musical with editing a Hollywood film he has directed. He is a workaholic who chain-smokes cigarettes; without a daily dose of Vivaldi, Visine, Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine, and sex, he wouldn't have the energy to keep up the biggest "show" of all—his life. His girlfriend Katie Jagger, his ex-wife Audrey Paris, and daughter Michelle try to pull him back from the brink, but it is too late for his exhausted body and stress-ravaged heart. In his imagination, he flirts with an angel of death named Angelique.
Gideon's condition gets progressively worse. He is rushed to a hospital after experiencing chest pains during a particularly stressful table-read (with the production's penny-pinching backers in attendance) and is admitted with severe angina. Joe brushes off his symptoms, and attempts to leave to go back to rehearsal. He collapses in the doctor's office, and is ordered to stay in the hospital for several weeks to rest his heart and recover from his exhaustion. The show is postponed, but Gideon continues his antics from the hospital bed, in brazen denial of his mortality. Champagne flows, endless strings of women frolic around his hospital room, and cigarettes are constantly being smoked. As cardiogram readings show no improvement, Gideon dances with death. A negative review for his film—which has been released without him—comes in, and Gideon has a massive coronary event. He undergoes coronary artery bypass surgery.
The show's backers must decide whether it's time to pack up, or replace Gideon as the director. Their matter-of-fact, money-oriented negotiations with the insurers are juxtaposed with graphic scenes of Joe's open-heart surgery. The producers realize that the best way to recoup their money and make a profit is to bet on Gideon dying: the insurance proceeds would result in a profit of over half a million dollars. Meanwhile, elements from Gideon's past life are staged in dazzling dream sequences of musical numbers he directs from his hospital bed while on life support. Realizing death is imminent and his mortality unconquerable, Gideon has another heart attack. In the film's glittery finale, he goes through the five stages of grief—anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance—featured in the stand-up routine he had been editing. As death closes in on Gideon, his fantasy episodes become more hallucinatory and extravagant. In an epilogue set up as a monumental variety show featuring everyone from his past, Gideon takes center stage.
The final shot shows his corpse being zipped up in a body bag.