Early on we’re told that one of the central themes in ‘Life Itself’ is that “Life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator.” This is actual dialogue from the film. The concept of an unreliable narrator has existed in narrative storytelling for centuries. Individuals smarter than I will point to Chaucer’s ‘The Cantebury Tales’ for a great example in literature. I would suggest Alan Moore’s Joker origin story ‘The Killing Joke’ as my favorite use of an unreliable narrator. The point is, be it Agatha Christy or David Fincher, we have a long history with this story telling device.
Dan Fogelman is also clearly a fan of the concept. Although, you do have to wonder how well he understands it. His use of it in the film feels less like a master storyteller crafting an opus and more like someone using cheap parlor tricks and mocking their audience. That is the film’s biggest sin to me. It gets so caught up in its pretentious narrative that it forgets to supply you hardly any human emotion to care about or latch onto.
It’d be a waste to get into a detailed plot synopsis of ‘Life Itself’. The story is as convoluted as it is contrived and would simply lead to everyone being confused. Just know it’s a big sprawling, multi-generational story. Kind of like ‘This is Us’, only squeezed into 119 minutes. I’ll imply say that the story initially follows Oscar Isaac & Olivia Wilde as they fall in love, get married and prepare to bring a baby into the world. Despair hits. We then pick up with Olivia Cooke playing the daughter of Isaac Wilde. She is a rebellious teen because of the awful hand life has dealt her. Also, She sings in a punk band. Despair hits.
We move across the globe to Spain to explain the family history of the Gonzalez family. Sergio Peris-Mencheta plays a good man, with a good wife (Laia Costa) who works for a good boss (Antonio Banderas). The loving couple has a son. Despair hits. So they go to New York. Despair hits. So they hire a doctor to help their son Rodrigo. Despair hits. Finally they—despair hits. It’s odd to see a movie so saccharine actively punish their characters like ‘Life itself’ does.
These story beats work okay on television where Fogelman has been hugely successful. However, ‘Life Itself’ is trying to hit a season’s worth of emotional moments in under two hours. The result leaves you feeling both annoyed and unhappy. Annoyed because the film hasn’t earned your emotional investment. So when it’s putting its characters through the ringer, you don’t know why you should care. Also unhappy, because who wants to watch people you aren’t emotionally invested in get tortured?
It should be noted that ‘Life Itself’ is loaded with fantastic actors all doing their best with the story in front of them. Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde have a few scenes early on in their courtship that are really lovely and heartwarming. Mandy Patinkin is perfect casting as Isaac’s Father and Cooke’s grandfather. He sadly isn’t in the film much. When he is though, his brand of sardonic doting is wonderful. The disservice ‘Life itself’ does to its actors is making everyone a decent human being. Meaning no character has any depth or nuance. There’s no human conflict. They’re just good people who constantly have bad things happen to them.
Dan Fogelman has made a few things I really like. The writer/director clearly has a fondness for sentimentality, and I think when it’s kept in check it can work out nicely. I think ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’ is a delightfully cheesy rom-com largely due to his screenplay. ‘Bolt’ is a sweet and kind children’s movie. ‘This is Us’ is something I haven’t seen, but clearly has die hard fans. The problem with ‘Life itself‘ is that Fogelman feels completely unchecked. It’s like he got it in his head that he had something he wanted to say about the humanity, unreliable narrators & Bob Dylan’s “Make you Feel My Love” and no one from Amazon Studios stepped in to give notes. The end result is an unwieldy mess of all of Fogelman’s worst impulses.
‘Life Itself‘ may work for those that have loved everything Fogelman has ever done and want to see it all happen in a single two hour story. Most will find cloying or worse. The actors here do their best to rise above their directors misplaced and lofty ambitions, but unfortunately aren’t very successful.