It’s hard to quite say whether there’s an audience for whom Dan Fogelman’s new film will wholeheartedly work. Anyone who can swallow the mawkish, muddled sentimentality that drives Life Itself will surely find its propensity to brutally slaughter major characters off putting. That said, this is not nearly so bad a feature as some might have you believe – barring, perhaps, a bewildering transatlantic shift mid way through. The ambition here is, at least, to be admired.
The film opens with a Samuel L. Jackson narrated preamble, concerning a therapist, her anorexic client and potential to be the hero of the story. It’s not a good start. Jackson irritates in a half-hearted impression of himself, whilst Fogelman’s script presents as smug in its own rambling self-regard – ‘She smoked, first of all, which they normally don’t let you show in movies anymore, even though we all still smoke sometimes’ – and countering disregard for viewers, who, the film seems to assume, cannot follow a story without narration. That latter problem persists throughout the film, even in stronger stretches. It is, and always will be, a major error in production for writers to explain to audiences what is going on before their own eyes. It’s a belittling and, frankly, boring technique. Life Itself is guilty of this all too often.
As it transpires, there is a twist and what we are being told to believe may not be so. It turns out that this introductory segment is not real but instead has been written by Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac), a troubled man whose happy relationship with Abby (Olivia Wilde) and their prospective parenthood has somehow derailed. The film finds him three months out of hospital and in therapy with prologue psychologist Dr. Cait Morris (Annette Bening). Slowly but surely, the tragedy of Will’s life is unfurled, largely through ‘A Christmas Carol’ like interactive flashbacks, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. Before long, we have flashed forward twenty years to find Will and Abby’s daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke: miscast but still wasted) similarly derailed – which here means: she wears crop tops, smokes and turns Bob Dylan ballads into heavy metal. Just as this new chapter settles, a thoroughly random left swipe transports the film to Spain for a love story with questionable morals and convoluted connections to what has come before. Oddly, no matter where we are in the film’s hundred year span, the time period seemingly remains consistently the same.
Fogelman is best known as the creator of NBC’s cross-generational television drama This is Us – although his pedigree in screenwriting includes Tangled and Crazy Stupid Love – and the prominence of this fact in the publicity of Life Itself speaks volumes as to what it is supposed to be achieving. Unfortunately, to that end, the film is not particularly successful. What works here, beyond Brett Pawlak’s generally amicable photography, are the handful of performers unfathomably able to deliver even the most risible of lines with the conviction required to make it seem like something someone might actually say. Though Will is desperately hard to warm to as a character, Isaac is strong, successfully wielding the likes of: ‘I’m waiting for the right moment because when I ask you out there’s not going to be any turning back for me.’ Wilde too does well to handle the film’s nonsensical over-arching thesis that ‘life itself is an unreliable narrator.’ There is a moment in which Fogelman pats himself on the back for conceiving this and almost justifies the hate his film has received.
The real problem here is that none of it rings true. Even if they’re not bad company, Fogelman’s characters rarely feel real, whilst his arcs and setups prove increasingly hard to believe the more they pile up. It is as though the intention here was to inject a Quentin Tarantino fairytale with oodles of heart – a dubious objective to begin with – but the result is the offspring of Collateral Beauty and A Dog’s Purpose. And here’s a spoiler for you: don’t get too attached to the dog either. Reasonable.