Watching Life Itself is like getting a Hallmark card from a serial killer. Even if you appreciate the sentiment, you still don’t feel good about it.
Written and directed by This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, Life Itself attempts to juggle several different themes, so much so that it can sometimes be difficult to understand just what exactly the film is attempting to say. That said, I think the main lesson of the film is that you should always look both ways before stepping out into the middle of the street. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a horrific backstory, involving a decapitated father, a pervy uncle, and a gun. It doesn’t matter if you love Pulp Fiction or if you think Bob Dylan’s more recent work is underrated. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a dog and husband who is so in love with you that he’s practically a stalker. It doesn’t even matter that your pregnant and looking forward to naming your firstborn after your favorite musician. If you don’t look both ways before stepping out into the middle of the street, you’re going to get hit by a big damn bus.
That’s the lesson that Abby (Olivia Wilde) does not learn and, as a result, she not only gets run over by a bus but we, the viewers, are subjected to seeing her repeatedly getting run over by that bus. As temtping as it is to feel bad for Abby, my sympathy was limited by the fact that she and her husband (Oscar Isaac) named their dog Fuckface. I mean, seriously, who does that? Not only is it cruel to the dog but it’s also inconsiderate to the people who have to listen to you shouting, “Fuckface!” whenever the dog gets loose. For whatever reason, the movie doesn’t seem to get how annoying this is. That’s because Life Itself is another one of those movies that mistakes quirkiness for humanity.
The other annoying thing about Abby is that she’s an English major who somehow thinks that the use of the unreliable narrator is an understudied literary phenonema. In fact, she’s writing her thesis on unreliable narrators. Her argument is that life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator because life is tricky and surprising, which doesn’t make one bit of sense.
Speaking of narrators, Life Itself has three, which is three too many. Two of the narrators are unreliable but I get the feeling that the third one is meant to be taken literally, which is a shame because the film would have made a lot more sense if it had ended with a Life of Pi-style revelation that none of what we just watched actually happened.
Anyway, Abby getting hit by a bus has repercussions that reverberate across the globe and across time. Not only does it lead to her husband writing a bad screenplay but it also leads to him committing suicide in a psychiatrist’s office. Abby’s daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke), grows up to be what this film believes to be a punk rocker, which means that she angrily covers Bob Dylan songs and stuffs a peanut butter and jelly sandwich down another girl’s throat. Meanwhile, in Spain….
What? Oh yeah, this film jumps from New York to Spain. In fact, it’s almost like another film suddenly starts after an hour of the first one. You go from Olivia Cooke sobbing on a park bench to Antonio Banderas talking about his childhood. Banderas is playing a landowner named Vincent Saccione. Saccione wants to be best friends with his foreman, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) but Javier suspects that Saccione just wants to steal away his saintly wife, Isabel (Laia Costa) and maybe Javier’s right!
Javier has a son named Rodrigo (who is played by five different actors over the course of the film before eventually growing up to be Alex Monner). When Saccione gives Rodrigo a globe, Javier decides to one-up him by taking his wife and child on a vacation to New York City. Rodrigo has a great time in New York, or at least he does until he distracts a bus driver, which leads to a bus running down a pregnant woman…
…and the movie’s not over yet! It just keeps on going and believe it or not, there’s stuff that I haven’t even mentioned. Life Itself has a running time of only two hours. (For comparison, it’s shorter than almost every comic book film that’s come out over the past few years.) This is one of the rare cases where the film might have been improved with a longer running time because Fogelman crams so much tragedy and melodrama into that running time that it literally leaves you feeling as if you’re being bludgeoned. This is one of those films that gets in your face and screams, “You will cry! You will cry!” Even if you are inclined to cry at movies (and I certainly am), it’s impossible not to resent just how manipulative the film gets. You get the feeling that if you spend too much time wondering about the plot holes or the on-the-nose dialogue, the third narrator might start yelling at you for not getting with the program.
Life Itself is full of twists that are designed to leave you considering how everything in life is connected but, for something like this to work, the twists have to be surprising. They have to catch you off-guard. They have to make you want to see the movie again so that you can look for clues. The twists in Life Itself are not surprising. Anyone who has ever seen a movie before will be able to guess what’s going to happen. For that matter, anyone who has ever sat through an episode of This is Us should be able to figure it all out. Life Itself is not as a clever as it thinks it is.
Also, for a film like this work, you have to actually care about the characters. You have to be invested in who they are. But nobody in the film ever seems to be real and neither do any of their stories. (To the film’s credit, it actually does point out that one narrator is idealizing the past but that’s an intriguing idea that’s abandoned.) Everyone is just a collection of quirks. We know what type of music they like but we never understand why. Background info, like Abby being molested by her uncle or Isabel being the fourth prettiest of six sisters, is randomly dropped and then quickly forgotten about. Almost ever woman has a tragic backstory and, for the most part, a tragic destiny. (Except, of course, for Rodrigo’s first American girlfriend, who is dismissed as being “loud.”) Every man is soulful and passionate. But who are they? The film’s narrators say a lot but they never get around to answering that question. This is a film that insists it has something to say about life itself but it never quite comes alive.
Some critics are saying that Life Itself is the worst film of 2018. Maybe. I don’t know for sure. The Happytime Murders left me feeling so icky that I haven’t even been able to bring myself to review it yet. Life Itself, on the other hand, is such a huge misfire that I couldn’t wait to tell everyone about it. There’s something to be said for that.