If you’ve been paying any kind of attention to advance reviews on this film, then you know that it’s one of the worst-reviewed movies of 2018—and deservedly so. Writer/director Dan Fogelman is the creator of NBC’s “This Is Us,” as well as a credited writer of such films as Cars, Tangled, and Crazy Stupid Love, all wonderful movies. His only other film as a director is Danny Collins, starring Al Pacino, which is a mixed bag of a comedy-drama, but I still found things to enjoy about it.
I’ve never seen “This Is Us,” but like that show, his new film Life Itself is a time-jumping, emotional journey that is meant to find power in big reveals (most of them tragic in nature) and impossible coincidences that are supposed to make us believe that something out there is guiding our fate, because we’re so important.
In truth, Life Itself is two stories in two different parts of the world that still manage to have layers of connective tissue that truly add nothing to the proceedings. The first story involves young New York couple Will and Abby (Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde), and even within their story there are time jumps, mostly sparked by the fact that Will is losing his mind and finding it impossible to cope with the flood of grief and torment that is sending his brain to its worst corners. As the film opens, we see the story of another hero (a story narrated by Samuel L. Jackson for no reason other than Fogelman is a big enough deal to get Jackson to pop into his movie for five minutes), and it turns out that Will is writing a screenplay in an attempt to get his life back on track. He’s actually speaking to his therapist (Annette Bening), as he’s forcing his fractured memories back into place—how he met Abby, how he first asked her out, how he proposed, meeting her parents, etc.—culminating in the two of them expecting a child together.
The film jumps ahead in time to the couple’s now early-adult daughter (Olivia Cooke) who is living with her grandparents (Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart) for reasons that I won’t get into, and she’s having a tough time adjusting to the idea of adulthood. But her rebellion seems ungrounded and vague since she apparently had a pretty stable and loving early life. The entire film is voiced by an unknown (until the end) narrator, Lorenza Izzo (who also appears in a small but important role in this week’s The House with a Clock in Its Walls), and trust me, when you find out who she is and why we’re hearing her take on these events, it will only make you loathe this movie all the more.
The issues with the film begin early, and they mostly revolve around the writing, which is all about telling and nothing about showing us a couple’s journey through love. When they speak to each other, we half expect them to turn to the camera and say “This next line/speech is important; please pay attention.” Fogelman’s dialogue sounds like a combination of greeting cards and bumper sticker philosophy, and it is so remarkably grating that it’s almost impossible to understand how this filmmaker has accomplished so much as a writer to this point. He seems to think that the only way to truly grow as a person is to go through the worst kinds of tragedy imaginable. And while a certain amount of suffering can certainly move a person a long way toward maturity, Fogelman takes it to almost an laughable place in Life Itself.
But that’s only half the movie. The second part of the film takes place in Spain and focuses (at least at first) on Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta from FX’s “Snowfall”), an olive plantation worker whose methods are old school. He impresses the landowner Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas) so much that Saccione makes him his right-hand man in the fields and even gives him a place to live on the property. This change in status gives Javier the means to finally ask his beloved Isabel (Laia Costa of Victoria) to marry him, and before long they have a son. Their happy existence makes Saccione envious, but in a way so kind that Javier eventually leaves his family to give them a better life with the landowner, which makes no damn sense.
At least this segment features some genuine emotion and earned dramatic tension, but once the son, Rodrigo, gets older (and is played by Alex Monner), the film goes off the rails again when he goes to college in New York City and eventually ends up running into an angsty young woman who may look familiar to anyone who hasn’t fallen asleep by this point in the movie. I’m sure Fogelman thinks Life Itself is some sort of examination of the human condition, especially in the ways we all love differently. If anything, the film drives us to the conclusion that we all love irrationally and make very stupid decisions at every turn, which may be very true, but it doesn’t make for very interesting cinema.
None of the performances stand out as extraordinarily poor. In fact, the segment in Spain is quite nicely acted most of the time. It’s the writing that leaps out as somehow unattached from actual human thought and behavior. We don’t always know exactly what horrible turn of events is coming to these characters, but we know one is coming every 20 minutes or so, and watching the movie becomes a countdown clock to unearned tears. I didn’t care who lived or died (that’s not entirely true; I wanted about half the characters out of my life forever early on), and it’s tough to enjoy a film when there simply are no stakes.
A sadistic part of me actually wants everyone to go see this, just to see how disastrously wrong a normally reliable writer and a host of fine actors can still go when given such weak material. It’s tempting, I know, but even I’m not that cruel.
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