'Life Itself' is an overwraught misfire
Updated: Dec 27, 2018
As someone who willingly succumbs to the syrupy ploys of Dan Fogelman’s hit drama series This Is Us every Tuesday night at 9, I knew exactly what I was in for when I sat down to watch his latest feature Life Itself. Albeit vague, the title alone indicates the type of storytelling that aims to explore the human condition through the mundanities of everyday life. It’s Fogelman’s shtick to capture the joys, tragedies and in-betweens (marriages, births, deaths, transracial adoptions, eating disorders, cancer diagnoses, etc.) of existing while providing some broad analysis of chance and interconnectedness.
He does it well most of the time. Even his overuse of closeups, flashbacks and flashforwards set to sad, indie songs evoke genuine sentiment from those who bare witness to his mushy auteurism. In Life Itself, Fogelman implements the same devices to make you feel for a set of strangers but fails to ground his characters in anything other than overly somber circumstance.
The movie is divided into chapters, the first being that of an institutionalized man named Will (Oscar Isaac) who is telling his therapist (Annette Bening) how his marriage fell to pieces and, subsequently, his mental state. Annette, why are you in this terrible movie? Flashbacks show him meeting his college sweetheart Abby (Olivia Wilde), her backstory, their speedy trip to the altar and Abby’s pregnancy with their child. By the time Will has sardonically relayed these oddly violent and depressing events, he realizes that his relationship with Abby may have actually been awful (in contrast to his memories) as he often smothered her with his romantic idealism. This notion is interesting, but it ends rather abruptly and (sigh) violently.
Chapter 2 focuses on the life of Will and Abby’s 21-year-old daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) who is reeling from the fact that most of her family is dead. And Chapter 3 follows a Spanish family, the Gonzalez's, with a dull, drawn-out storyline that halts the momentum of the first half of the film - and one that I don't care to recapitulate in this piece.
In the later chapters, we find out that a boy named Rodrigo (Alex Monner), of the Gonzalez family, witnessed the death of Abby who got hit by a bus whilst pregnant with Dylan. This happenstance makes him spiritually (and romantically) connected to Dylan somehow. The final chapter is a snapshot of Dylan and Rodrigo's adult daughter Elena (Lorenza Izzo), who inconsistently narrates the film. She's sharing her family's story to an audience in a bookstore because, like any smart businesswoman, she wrote a book about it. She says something about heartache and love over a montage of the short-lived, feel-good moments was saw earlier in the film, and I immediately wish I could have those two hours of my life back.
Life Itself should actually be called Life Is Sad because it's jam-packed with so much goddamn tragedy. And tragedy is illustrated in broad strokes. When Fogelman began writing this script, I imagine he greatly underestimated the average moviegoer's ability to feel (but mostly cry), thus compiling the most depressing scenarios he could think of. Both visually and thematically, this film comes off as a two-hour commercial for Prozac.
I wish I could at least applaud Fogelman's ambition, as I know he's ultimately a skilled writer and director. But as IndieWire's Kate Erbland said in her review of the film, this movie "thinks you're stupid." It's clear that Fogelman is trying to present some profound thesis about life, but the only conclusion I could gather is that "bad things happen, and sometimes good things come out of them," which is something my 11-year-old niece could tell me.