LFF 2018: Life Itself Review
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By now, you’re probably aware of the infamous reputation Dan Fogelman’s romantic drama has built for itself. Upon its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, critics reacted with sheer repulsion, labelling it one of the worst films of the year if not the decade, as well as an ironic cult oddity waiting to be discovered. Comparisons to The Book of Henry, Colin Trevorrow’s much maligned child abuse drama from last year, became commonplace - not least because this was a director following an earlier success (Trevorrow from Jurassic World, Fogelman from TV sensation This is Us) with a work of insane and entirely misplaced hubris.
The disappointment at sitting through Life Itself doesn’t stem from the film being bad, so much as it is that the film is nowhere near bad enough to have earned its reputation. Fogelman’s melodrama is very much in the same vein as his small screen hit, and so mostly just succumbs to overwrought tedium. The moments of narrative insanity that are here are few and far between, and have likely been overrepresented by viewers due to the overwhelming blandness of everything onscreen - the truly bananas moments are the only thing that leave an impression, but they are nowhere near representative of this mawkish family drama as a whole.
One of the reasons Life Itself is a hubristic work is because of Fogelman’s attempt to span entire generations to tell this single story, offering simplistic platitudes about the human condition which he believes to be profound - a Hallmark greetings card that believes its Plato. In the first of these stories, Oscar Isaac plays Will, a man separated from his wife, who is attending therapy after being institutionalised following the incident that ended their marriage. This is introduced, bizarrely, via an excerpt from his screenplay where Samuel L Jackson (starring as himself) is an “unreliable narrator” of events, a simplistic concept in literature that the film wants us to believe his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) wrote an entire thesis on, due to how groundbreaking it is.
After this first chapter, we then go down through generations to Isaac and Wilde’s daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) celebrating her 21st birthday, and in an act of pure insanity, back over twenty years in the past to Spain, where Antonio Banderas is playing an Italian (?) character and giving extensive monologues about the benefits of olive oil. To say anything more would constitute a spoiler, but as is the given with ensemble films in this vein, everything is connected, and the coincidences that link these stories stretch credulity beyond breaking point.
The first “chapter” of Life Itself is where the film reaches its nadir, with all the puzzling decisions that have caused such excessive criticism occurring within this introductory half hour. However, the thing that left me scratching my head was the unclear timeline; the second chapter follows the daughter of the former couple 21 years later, which should naturally mean this opening section was set in 1997. However, there are flashbacks to early stages of the relationship between Wilde and Isaac’s characters where they reminisce of Bob Dylan’s comeback album Time Out of Mind - released in 1997. This is all the more puzzling due to the cultural connotations around them that suggest this section is set in the nineties (read: extensive references to Tarantino movies), and yet Isaac’s Samuel L Jackson screenplay opens with an ever so slightly homophobic reference to Billy on the Street, Billy Eichner’s web comedy series that began earlier this decade.
This means that, if the film is to be believed, the section following the couple’s daughter would be taking place sometime in the late 2030s, with a later chapter reaching out into the second half of the 21st Century. This is never properly established, and as the timelines and the coincidences forcing them together become more convoluted, I occupied myself from the mind numbing tedium by just trying to get a handle on when exactly this story takes place. Because if this DOES reach out that far to the future, Fogelman may have made the most mundane science fiction film ever produced.
One of the reasons that this isn’t a catastrophe of astronomic proportions is primarily because of far bigger ensemble movie car crashes in the past, the worst offender being the one that got the Best Picture Oscar in 2005. It’s hard to describe Fogelman’s film as transcendentally awful when compared to Crash, Paul Haggis’ tone deaf drama on race relations - after all, he isn’t making a misjudged statement on society, just a contrived, clichéd drama about family. There’s nothing offensive, or offensively bad, here, just pure, undiluted mediocrity. I was left wishing the film was as much of a disaster as everybody had said, as the reality of Life Itself is far less interesting.