As evidenced by the title, Life Itself has grand ambitions.¬†
It wants to be about the joy and love that are with us even at the worst of times, about the way death shapes our lives and gives them meaning, about all the twisting threads make up our fates, whether we know about them or not. I don’t have to guess here, because the movie says as much in so many words.¬†
What it actually delivers, though, is a big sloppy pile of WTF.
Life Itself is the new film directed by Dan Fogelman, best known as the creator of This Is Us and the screenwriter of Crazy, Stupid, Love. If you are familiar with his other works, you’ll know to look for some of his trademarks here.¬†
Shocking plot twists that are really just basic information about how the characters you’re watching are connected? Check. An almost unseemly fascination with death of a beloved family member? Yup, several times over. Extreme emotional manipulation? Oh, definitely check. Life Itself will not be happy unless you are sobbing into your popcorn.
But the tricks that have served him well in other stories fail Fogelman here. Instead of amping up the feels or delighting us with surprise reveals, they get in the way of any weight or emotion the movie might have carried otherwise.¬†
Life Itself is divided into five chapters, each focusing on a different character or group of characters. What they all have to do with one another won’t be clear until the end, though you’ll have plenty of opportunities to speculate while your mind is wandering during one of the film’s many tedious monologues.¬†
The first is the most distinctive, and the worst. It’s the very sad story of a man (Oscar Isaac, trying his best as always) whose wife (Olivia Wilde, who has to try even harder with even worse material) has just left him. Only it’s not really sad, because it’s aggressively quirky, peppered with Tarantino-lite flourishes like a ton of fucks, verbose rants about pop culture, and sudden bursts of violence.¬†
Does that sound like a really strange way to describe a movie that’s being marketed as a shorter This Is Us? Well, it’s a really strange way to frame a movie that seems to wish it were a shorter This Is Us.¬†
The others don’t have a ton in common with the tone of that first chapter. But because Life Itself set such an aggressively sour tone early on, I kept bracing myself for something sudden and awful to happen. Up until the very end, I wondered if these characters were about to murder or assault another.¬†
It’s really anyone’s guess, since none of these people feel like coherent creations. They’re prone to off-the-cuff rants that seem less like something a real person would say and more like something an overeager student would whip up for an intro screenwriting course. “It’s like a movie, right?” is a thing that one of these characters says at one point.¬†
The men, at least, fare better than the women. The guys get to be epically romantic or foolishly proud or hopelessly lovelorn. They’re masters of their own destinies. When one meets the love of his life, it’s described as the most important day of his life ‚Äď who knows or cares what the most important day of her life might be?
Life Itself is so mind-bogglingly misguided, it’s going to be great fun to talk about.
For all their cool-girl feistiness, the women of this film are really just there to be adored by the male leads, and to giggle attractively in the many, many, many, many montages that show how deliriously happy these couples are. “He loved his wife with an intensity usually reserved for stalkers,” says a voiceover at one point, with a tone that suggests we’re supposed to find this description cute rather than creepy.
There is one reason and one reason only to watch Life Itself, and it’s that, like Collateral Beauty and Book of Henry before it, Life Itself is one of those movies that’s so mind-bogglingly misguided, it’s going to be great fun to talk about.
Really, the question will be where to start. With the bizarrely casual references to child molestation, domestic violence, and sexual harassment? With the cringeworthy dialogue, which yields such groaners like “Life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator?” With the confoundingly convoluted plot, which grows to be so punishingly bleak that Life Itself is basically Saw for emotions?
Life Itself may not have all the answers to all the mysteries of the universe or whatever, but it does have enough nonsense to fuel several cocktail parties’ worth of chatter. I guess that’s something.