Life Itself (2018)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/21/18 04:26:14
When I first encountered the trailer for “Life Itself” a few weeks ago, it looked liked such a gauche and gimmicky piece of would-be Oscar bait that I was almost willing to give it the benefit of the doubt that it was an original and ambitious work that had been artlessly reduced to a couple of minutes of seemingly random moments by a studio marketing department that has no idea of how to properly introduce it to the public. After premiering at the Toronto FilmFestival a couple of weeks ago, I spoke to a couple of colleagues who saw it there who hastened to assure me that no, it really was just as bad as the trailer made it look. Once again, I was kind of willing to give it the benefit of the doubt since festival reactions tend to be the hottest of hot takes and the more extreme positions, both pro and con, should probably be taken with the proverbial grain of salts. However, now that I have finally seen “Life Itself,” I can assure you that both my initial impression of the trailer and the comments of my colleagues were both spot on as it truly is one of the smarmiest, stupidest and most hollowly manipulative films that I have ever seen in my life. This is a film that has been custom-designed to give viewers all of the feels and jerk as many tears as allowed by law but the only thing I felt while watching it was utter contempt and the only authentic tear that I shed was the one that came when I looked at my watch after it had been playing for what felt like four days and discovered that there was still about an hour left to go.To give the film some credit, it at least announces its ineptitude right up front with one of the most instantly irritating intros I can recall—the kind that will immediately send most right-minded viewers scurrying out into the lobby for either a refund or a better movie. (Good news—you wont easily find a worse one.) In these scenes, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, we observe some random dope in a therapy session and when he proves to be to boring, the focus of the narration turns to his therapist, played by Annette Bening. After the session, she goes outside for a cigarette, meets Oscar Issac on the street and then promptly gets hit by a bus, a turn of events that causes Jackson to throw up his hands and flee the proceedings. As it turns out, everything that we have just witnessed has been part of a terrible screenplay being written by Will (Issac), a deeply disturbed man who is still reeling since his beloved pregnant wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) left him under mysterious circumstances six months earlier. Now under the care of a therapist (Bening), Will vaguely recounts the circumstances of his life with Abby from their respective childhoods to their wedded bliss, even bringing the two of them into his flashbacks to observe things more closely. As the flashbacks progress, however, Will finds himself increasingly seized by the notion that perhaps things were not always as rosy as he allows himself to remember them—as the film states in the kind of literary epiphany that would be rejected by most self-respecting fortune cookies, “Life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator.” If you think that sounds bad just once, be warned that the film repeats that sentiment ad nauseam like some kind of mantra.
Anyway, that section ends fairly abruptly and then moves forward in time 21 years to introduce us to Will and Abby’s now-grown daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke), the disaffected lead singer of one of the least convincing “punk” bands to ever turn up in a movie. Before too long, the movie abandons her for the next section—I mean chapter—and hops across the pond to Spain to tell the story of poor-but-honest olive picker Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and his wife, waitress Bella (Laia Costa). Javier’s boss, fabulously wealthy land owner Vincent (Antonio Banderas) takes a shine to him and offers him a job as a foreman and a place to live on his estate. Alas, Vincent, who is a genuinely decent sort, falls desperately in love with Bella as well, which Javier can plainly see for himself just from the way he looks at her. Javier is able to keep things together for a while but when a tragedy befalls his and Bella’s young son, Rodrigo, the situation changes and he finds himself making the ultimate sacrifice for the happiness of his loved ones. Years later, Rodrigo (Alex Monner) will find himself in New York City and, over the course of the last section, finds himself embarking on the most important and significant day of his life. And if you are still thirsty for more, there is even an epilogue that once again restates the central thesis about unreliable narrators on the off-chance that someone out there in the dark still hasn’t gotten it yet—to be fair, if they are still sitting there watching the film without any sort of professional obligation to be there, perhaps they require the additional drilling.
“Life Itself” was written—boy, is it written—and directed by Dan Fogelman, the creator of the hit TV show “This is Us,” and it bears all the hallmarks of the kind of embarrassing initial literary effort that usually winds up hidden away in a desk drawer somewhere, never to see the light of day. With few exceptions, none of the sprawling cast of characters ring true as actual people—they come across as thinly developed delivery systems for Fogelman’s various pronouncements on life, love, loss and the human condition, none of which ever sound like the sort of thing that a normal person might ever say out loud in mixed company. The stories themselves have nothing much to say either—not that they ever shut up for a second—and the strain that they show in their attempts to make big sweeping statements is so pronounced that almost every scene comes drenched in flop sweat from the effort. Fogelman must have realized on some level early on that his collection of seemingly unrelated stories was not working a dramatic level and so he tries any number of gimmicks and dirty tricks to provoke some kind of reaction from viewers. The literary gambits involving unreliable narrators, unlikely connections between the stories and futzing with the timeline are all ineptly handled and only call attention to themselves as empty parlor tricks instead of adding anything of substance to the proceedings. (To make matters worse in this particular area, the film inexplicably includes a long sequence at a costume party with Will and Abby dressed like John Travolta and Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction,” which only serves to remind us of a film that did manage to deploy such concepts in an intriguing and enriching manner.) When those don’t work, which is always, Fogelman’s other failsafe device is to throw in some tragic event in an effort to inspire some kind of emotion. Yes, he does that on “This is Us” but in that case, the tragedies are spread out over the course of a 22-episode season and so there is some degree of breathing room between the miseries. Here, the tragic events—and everyone in the cast seems to endure at least one—are crammed into two hours and are so unrelenting and cynically conceived that they inspire only contempt. You think I’m kidding? The film actually introduces a beloved pet dog only so that we can be sad that it is killed off—the only time we see or hear about it comes when it is put to sleep in a vet’s office while the little girl who loves it looks on sadly. Other characters come and go with such rapidity that the film almost turns into a parody of itself after a while.
The only section of “Life Itself” that even comes remotely close to working is the section set in Spain. Yes, it is terribly written and as contrived as everything else in the film but it has two elements working at least somewhat in its favor. The first is that since almost all of this section is in Spanish (a fact that may come as a surprise to most moviegoers since the trailer do not even hint at it), many viewers will end up reading the dialogue for themselves, which makes the purple prose slightly easier to digest than to hear people actually trying to speak those words in a believable manner. The second is that the performances by the three central actors in this sequence are about as close as the film ever gets to being genuinely touching and convincing—Banderas is especially good in selling the hackneyed cliches that he has been handed. For the rest of the roles, Fogelman has been able to recruit a top-notch cast but they all seem to be as stymied by the material as we in the audience are. Oscar Isaac has given so many strong performances over the last few years that it seems inconceivable that he could give a bad performance—he even brought a dud like “Suburbicon” to life when he briefly turned up—but he offers up a really embarrassing and overbearing turn that would have ground the film to a halt if anything about it had worked in the first place. The others just seem lost and confused as they deliver dialogue that is often unspeakable in both senses of the word. The one curiosity in the cast is Wilde—having already appeared in one indescribably bad movie featuring contrived intertwined storylines set across the globe in which tortured literary devices are trotted out as symbols of the human condition in Paul Haggis’s dreadful “Third Person,” what could have possibly possessed her to sign on for another project along those lines that was even worse?How bad is “Life Itself,” you might ask? It is so bad that it almost makes a jaw-dropper like “Collateral Beauty” seem staid, sane and coherent by comparison. It is so bad that I fear that I may never be able to listen to Bob Dylan’s 1997 masterpiece “Time Out of Mind” again as it is recurring audio motif throughout the film and I fear that I may have a Ludovico Technique-like reaction the next time I put it on. It is so bad that I want to start a campaign to rename both Roger Ebert’s autobiography of the same name and the documentary it was based on since this film has poisoned that particular title forever. This is one of the most insufferable films that I have ever seen and the fact that anyone could have deluded themselves that it was worthy of committing to film absolutely boggles the mind. It is only fitting, I suppose, that it comes from the mind of the creator of “This is Us” because the whole thing is a deadly crock from start to finish.
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