It’s a telling sign when the most entertaining and only redeeming part of “Life Itself” happens within the first five minutes. Guided by an irreverent voiceover from Samuel L. Jackson, the film introduces and promptly kills off Annette Bening’s cigarette-smoking therapist in a clever, meta sequence. Unfortunately, this scene is only a prelude to the visualization of a terrible screenplay written by protagonist Will (Oscar Isaac).
Through a series of vignettes spanning generations, continents and languages, writer and director Dan Fogelman presents two painful hours of what cannot be accurately described as a narrative film, but rather contrived emotional manipulation. While Fogelman won acclaim as the creator of the emotionally nuanced and Emmy-nominated “This Is Us,” “Life Itself” merely repeats a series of self-important platitudes with the subtlety of a blow horn.
Will, portrayed by the versatile Isaac, is utterly wasted in the first vignette. He is imbued with every Hollywood stereotype of instability: scraggly beard, worn-out hoodie, morning coffee spiked with alcohol and Xanax. The film introduces him at his rock bottom: kicked out of a Starbucks after drunkenly yelling Bob Dylan lyrics. He has been in a downward spiral since his wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde), left him six months ago, and has been seeing a court-mandated therapist (Bening).
Will possesses so many unlikable characteristics, no redeeming attributes and is even described by the narrator as “stalker-ish.” He never engenders the sympathy required to make his arc appealing. The scenes exploring the development of his relationship with Abby are meet-cute to the point of being cringeworthy and exploit the tired trope of using song lyrics for symbolic meaning. In this case Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love.” Bening does not play a character but rather a hologram; her therapist is a blank slate and serves no particular purpose except to provide Will with the sympathy the audience cannot.
Unfortunately, the film’s stock characters continue in the second segment, where Olivia Cooke portrays the quintessential troubled teenage girl, replete with dyed hair, tattoos, a rock band and rebellion against her grandfather (the criminally underused Mandy Patinkin). Only in the third arc — the sole Spanish-speaking episode — does the film demonstrate some complexity. Antonio Banderas is characteristically charismatic as a wealthy landowner who mentors his employee’s young son, but it’s Sergio Peris-Mencheta who shines as the boy’s father. Peris-Mencheta portrays the anguish of a wearied father who knows his family is slipping away with a subtlety that is absent from the rest of the film.
“Life Itself” attempts to weave these three separate arcs together through a series of plot twists that are all either implausible or predictable. The final vignette that links these stories features a resolution that is both glaringly obvious and overly simplistic. Fogelman treats death so casually that narrative tragedy loses its profundity to an absurd degree. It’s almost as if the film is playing tragedy bingo, accompanied by the obligatory soundtrack of sad piano music.
Ultimately, the greatest tragedy in “Life Itself” is how it wastes an ensemble of talented actors. It hammers its audience in the head with monologues and voiceovers to further explain its insufferably preachy and patently simple messages about life, loss and love. For a film that attempts to make a grand statement about the nature of life, “Life Itself” is utterly lifeless.
Email George Zhai at [email protected]