Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself is a shallow insipid manipulative mess. It’s meant to play as a deep philosophical musing about the beauty and randomness of death. Instead, it comes off as a torturous pseudo-intellectual and trite cliche picking clumsily at our heartstrings.
The first twenty minutes of Life Itself is so cloyingly insufferable I briefly contemplated walking out. Life Itself opens with narration by Samuel L. Jackson. Correction: Fogelman’s idea of Samuel L. Jackson. While he does have the actual Samuel L. Jackson narrate, the style is in the vein of the way he talked in Pulp Fiction. Affected, loud, and layered with profanity. Jackson is narrating how Will (Oscar Isaac) meets the famous psychiatrist Dr. Cait Morris (Annette Bening). The good doctor stupidly stands in the middle of the crosswalk in New York City to talk briefly to Will. Of course, she is hit by a bus and dies.
But wait—there’s a twist. It never really happened! It turns out the whole thing was really just Will working on his unfinished script in which he has Samuel L. Jackson narrating. Isaac takes over the narration duty as the unshaven and drunken Will stumbles around a Starbucks. Will then begins to tell us the story of his one true love Abby (Olivia Wilde).
Life Itself does this constantly and predictably. It hits us with a sudden violent occurrence or event but then attempts to soften, or sharpen, the blow with, “but that’s not what really happened.” Rarely has a movie been so nakedly cynical about its very existence as Life Itself.
Irwin (Mandy Patinkin), Will’s father, tries to comfort Will and Abby’s daughter Dylan (Kya Kruse). Fogelman, who also wrote this and should be tried separately for both crimes, has multiple variations of the same conversation. It could work but it doesn’t because Fogelman is too busy being enthralled by his own cleverness.
The scene is meant to be an emotionally wrenching scene between a grandfather and granddaughter. It is instead an exercise in screenwriting theatrics. Fogelman has the scene play out in a repetitive fractured structure. We see what the characters mean to say. Fogelman then switches to what they actually said. Sometimes, maddeningly, even switching to what they wanted to say, which is somehow different then what they mean to say.
Life Itself is so busy trying to be clever by constantly reminding you you’re watching a movie. But by pointing out all its tricks and gimmicks it fails to ever resonate. Shrill and incessant, much of Life Itself never shuts up long enough for anything to have any meaning. The narration is nearly constant, telling us things that would be much more interesting to see than listen to. A tragic waste considering we have two charismatic, gorgeous, and deeply talented stars such as Isaac and Wilde.
Isaac’s Will is a terrifying creation of obsession and narcissism draped in “true love.” At a frat party, Abby sits next to Will and asks if he’s ever going to ask her out. His response is, “I want to make sure the moment is right. Because once I come for you Abby, there’s no going back.” I wanted to scream that Abby should call the police.
Wilde’s Abby, while not as terrifying or toxic as Will, is as irritating. Her obsession with Dylan, well one album of Dylan, is the least of her issues. As a student, she writes a thesis paper about—you’re not going to believe this—how, “life is the ultimate unreliable narrator.” So yes, this is me recommending you take at least one barf bag into the theater with you.
Fogelman is the most unnerving of artists. He’s the type who claims to understand people and emotions all the while demonstrably writing and showing exactly the contrary. Sexual harassment, sexual child abuse and rape, depression, and emotional terrorism are all things that are mentioned glibly offscreen. They are never shown because they would hamper Fogelman’s main argument.
An argument put forth by Isabel (Laia Costa), the wife of Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and mother of an adult Rodrigo (Alex Monner). The argument is this, “life will bring you to your knees.” But if you get up and just go a little bit further you’ll find love. It’s a secular version of, “God only gives you as much as you can handle,” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.” The most gut-wrenching thing that happens to any of these characters is death, which to be fair, is a horror all its own.
But Fogelman’s glibness to the horrors of abuse in favor of dealing with grief is telling. Abuse of any kind is not something you can overcome. It’s a day by day thing and even if you find the love of your life, it is something that is still there. But he doesn’t really care or understand people enough to even bother looking at it like that. Fogelman skips merrily along giving us awful people dressed up as saints.
Fogelman compounds this by making Abby a martyr of sorts. She survived rape, abuse, and molestation but Fogelman’s conceit is she’s so magical because she’s so happy and kind. Abuse, emotional or physical, has long reaching tentacles that affect the rest of the survivor’s lives. Different people react and process it differently. Will tells his therapist that Abby was special because, “you couldn’t tell anything like that had happened to her.” I muttered a few choice words to that sentiment.
Eventually, we move on from Will and Abby, Dr. Morris, Irwin, and now grown Dylan (Olivia Cooke). Now we go to Spain where we meet Javier Gonzalez, “a simple man.” He is the olive picking foreman for Vincent (Antonio Banderas). Javier’s wife Isabel and their young son, Rodrigo (Adrian Marrero) live in a house provided by Vincent on his land. When Javier took the job he made it very clear to Vincent that they were not to be friends. Long story short the lonely and stately Vincent falls for Isabel. But Vincent keeps his distance and merely offers Rodrigo little gifts.
Discovering Vincent’s true feelings, Javier banishes Vincent from his house and takes his family on a vacation to New York. While there, they see the sights, enjoy street vendor food, and Rodrigo witnesses the death of a pregnant woman standing in the middle of the crosswalk in New York City. Are you not entertained?!
The pregnant woman is, of course, Abby, whose death Will has been repressing. It should be noted on the never-ending lists of grievances I have for Life Itself the pettiest is reserved for the ridiculous fake baby bump given to Wilde’s Abby. It’s as if they shoved a basketball under her shirt.
So the Gonzalez’s return to Spain traumatized Rodrigo in tow. Isabel pleads with Javier to ask Vincent for help to help pay for Rodrigo’s therapy. Javier relents and because Vincent is not a horrible man, he agrees to pay for Rodrigo’s therapist. Of course, he begins to show up more and more but he’s really just looking for company.
Because Javier is “a simple man” he confronts Vincent. Vincent confesses that he loves Isabel and cares for Rodrigo. Vincent vows to stay away, even going so far as to promise to move away. The simple man Javier says no and leaves his wife and family, getting another job on the other side of the country. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating, Fogelman doesn’t understand people.
I’ve gone on for some length by how much I hated Life Itself. And I do, hate it. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. I hate it with the intensity of the heat death of the universe.
But Antonio Banderas is a movie star and a damn fine actor. Fogelman makes three good decisions in this whole shrillish cynical mess. The first is getting Antonio Banderas. The second is he silences the babbling narrators. The third, he allows us to hear Banderas speak Spanish.
Banderas’s Vincent is not a deep character. Perhaps if we were given more time he would be revealed to be as idiotic as everybody else. But whenever Banderas comes on screen Life Itself, despite itself, starts to work ever so slightly.
Life Itself is the type of movie where everybody has a monologue inside a monologue about other monologues. But when it comes time for Banderas to give his own monologue, I found myself interested and curious. Part of this is because Banderas is just sitting and talking.
Better than that, he is telling us a story, but he is not telling us every minute detail. He tells us the bits he finds to be important and no more. It is a moment of simplicity, restraint, and verisimilitude stranded in a vast sea of artificiality and pretentiousness.
Banderas’s performance as Vincent is so good that he alone keeps Life Itself from being the worst movie of the year. It doesn’t make up for any of the movie’s innumerable problems; oh no, not by a longshot. It merely makes Life Itself bearable for a short time.
Fogelman tries to wow us with little flourishes of the camera. Brett Pawlak, who shot Short Term 12 is hobbled by Fogelman’s obsession with cheap and flashy camera tricks. We have close-ups of actors faces as characters age over the years. Reams of montages of couples in love so we don’t have to see them in love, only understand they are in love. In other words, nothing is implied. Everything is stated outright which leaves the cameraman precious little to explore, show, or allude to.
While talking to Dr. Morris, Will talks about Abby. We are shown the doctor and Will walking through the campus grounds where they go to college. In the background, Abby is having a snowball fight with Abby. She is being pelted with snowballs by Abby. A nightmarish landscape unfolds as the grounds become inundated with a horde of laughing Abby clones as they pelt each other with snowballs.
Life Itself doesn’t understand how therapy sessions work, how couples work, how relationships work, or even how stories work. Abby’s conceit about “unreliable narration” is a complete and utter pedantic reading of a literary narrative device. We find out later on that she, rightfully, failed her thesis. But Life Itself is, if nothing else, true to itself, and we find out that the professor who failed her also sexually harassed her.
I realize I may be alone in my hatred of Life Itself. In my theater where I saw it, many in the audience were visibly sobbing. While I am not a judgmental man when it comes to what movies move other people; I feel I may have found my threshold. Life Itself is the second worst movie of the year, saved only by Antonio Banderas. Which means that somewhere, out there lurking in the near future, is something worse than Life Itself. I shudder to think what it could possibly be.