Life Itself is a story about stories. It aspires to be a deconstruction of narrative and narration and, ultimately, fails at both.
A warning sign for any newly released film these days is if you can either simultaneously stream it and view it in cinemas, or even worse it goes straight to Netflix or Amazon or Sky Cinema. You only have to recall that calamity that was The Cloverfield Paradox last year as an example of the latter. Life Itself, written and directed by Dan Fogelman, falls into the former bracket, at least in the UK. It has been released both in cinemas and on Sky Cinema on the same weekend. This suggests Sony Pictures internationally cut a deal to maximise engagement after some dire critical responses in the United States.
This is the second picture as director by Fogelman after 2015’s Al Pacino-starring Danny Collins but by no means his first foray into screenwriting. Fogelman wrote Disney’s Cars, Cars 2 and Tangled, not to mention the surprisingly strong Crazy, Stupid, Love. Sadly, he is also responsible for dead on arrival comedy The Guilt Trip starring Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, plus OAP comedy Last Vegas. Historically, this suggests Fogelman is roughly a fifty-fifty talent – sometimes he scores, sometimes he misses, and badly. If this is *his* story, it’s the story of most creatives in Hollywood.
Life Itself is, demonstrably, a sizeable miss.
Fogelman’s script is an episodic, multi-generational drama revolving around a connected series of tragedies which bring together two people from different parts of the world – angry young American Dylan (played by Olivia Cooke, who also appeared in Fogelman-scripted Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and aspirational Spaniard Rodrigo. Their stories are the final chapter of a broader canvas primarily revolving around both of their parents, the mistakes and choices they make, and how the cold hand of fate frequently deals them a duff card. Both lose their mothers at a young age. Both have weak fathers who abandon them in different ways. Neither have much faith in a traditional, functional family setup.
Life Itself is less concerned with the minutiae of this as it is the broader philosophical underpinnings of how families and people and generations operate as components of a bigger story. The story of life… itself. And if that sounds pretentious on paper, imagine what it must look like on screen.
Fogelman’s central hook is, admittedly, interesting. The first chapter at least, revolving around Dylan’s parents Will (a cloying Oscar Isaac) and Abby (a remote Olivia Wilde), establishes the principles built into his script. Everyone sees themselves as the heroes in their own story, never the villain. Abby is way too pleased with herself at deciding her college thesis should be about the ‘unreliable narrator’, a key tenet of fiction; the idea that only someone who lives an experience can be considered a reliable relator of that story, and every third person storyteller is by definition unreliable. Abby’s excitement comes from deciding the biggest unreliable narrator is life… itself (there’s that title again). To her this is groundbreaking. To me, this just led to a groan.
Fact is, Fogelman’s point of interest here is nothing new. We’ve been fascinated culturally by heroes and villains, and the hero’s journey, since time immemorial and since literature began. Cinematically we are particularly right now living through a period where heroic and villainous journeys are being drawn through the plethora of superhero tales and cinematic universes constructed around these very questions. What makes you a good guy or bad guy? The question extends to television and the fictions playing out in recent years in shows as diverse as Doctor Who to Westworld – are we a white hat or a black hat? Is there a significant dividing line between the two?
Life Itself seems as pleased with itself in trying to pose these questions as Abby does in promoting her thesis. You only have to look at how the film opens, with the actualisation of a therapist task that Will works through, in which he writes a script with Samuel L. Jackson’s uniquely verbose patter describing events… which we hear narrated by Jackson himself. Fogelman during the Will/Abby chapter (called ‘The Hero’) seems preoccupied with the place of cinema inside this deconstruction of story – they attend a party dressed as Vincent & Mia from Pulp Fiction, cycle through films known for narrators. Yet it all just feels empty. The film doesn’t play any of this as subtext, front-loading it into ponderous speeches and embarrassing interplay between actors capable of better.
Just take the Gonzalez family chapter. While always dependable and charismatic on screen, did Antonio Banderas really believe the Andalusian-set story was anything but the most trite depiction of modern Spanish life possible in a movie?
The whole segment is literally the story of a rich estate owner who inviegles himself into the life of a honest, simple farmer and his family, at which point the farmer—having convinced himself he is not good enough or wealthy enough to look after them—walks out on his wife and son, but—get this—asks the rich estate owner who he allows to raise said family to write to him and keep him posted on his wife and son’s life! It is, frankly, ridiculous, even more than it is painfully cliche. Fogelman strains credulity hard in trying to have us question who is the greater villain – the rich man who tries to make up for his father’s shortcomings by raising another man’s family? Or the simple man who walks out on them because of his own insecurities? Please. This is about as believable as how fate works in this film.
Yes. Fate. Life Itself is Serendipity by way of Lost and, to borrow a line from the film, 17th century French philosophy.
Everything is connected. Everything is meant to be. You can’t take any version of events as straightforward because life… itself just isn’t that simple. We are all the heroes *and* villains of our own story and, well, shit happens. Life is like a box of chocolates. Insert cloying sentimental platitude here. My wife commented how this film is the living embodiment of those ‘Live, Life, Love’ frames you can hang on your wall at home or put on your desk at work. Cod-philosophy without any of the brainpower, far less profound and meaningful than it thinks it is, and far more absurd.
You could almost forgive Life Itself if it worked harder to be a direct fable, or a film which more often broke the fourth wall to allow us in on the philosophical joke, but no. Fogelman wants us all weeping into our Kleenex by the saccharine denouement. Sorry Dan, it’s all just a bridge too far.
This is one story we didn’t need telling.