As we inch closer and closer to Oscar season, I think it’s necessary to set the record straight before the onslaught of prestige pictures hits theaters. Some of these festival darlings will impress while others won’t live up to the hype, but as we navigate this strange time of the year, let’s remember this simple, but vital, fact: Just because a film is “about something,” doesn’t inherently make it good or important. Surely, we can love, hate, or even criticize a film because of its thematic implications, but in doing so, we must also consider the way in which the film approaches its themes and the ideas it wishes to convey. Case and point: Life Itself. It premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival with its star-studded cast smiling and taking photos on the red carpet. It’s being distributed by Amazon Studios, a company that has had success in the past promoting awards contenders like Manchester by the Sea and The Big Sick. Even the title, Life Itself, radiates an aura of prestigious self-importance, presenting itself as some sort of Rosetta stone for life’s woes—a film that has finally captured life’s essence and distilled it into a handy 117-minute feature. All of these factors positioned the film to be one of the great triumphs of the fall movie season. The only problem is, it’s unfathomably inept.
Dealing in big themes like inherited trauma and the interconnectedness of the human experience, Life Itself tells the multigenerational story of a New York family with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the gushiness of a Hallmark card. The film’s first half is framed through a lengthy therapy session between a haggard Will (Oscar Isaac) and his psychiatrist (Annette Bening), during which he recounts the story of his relationship with his college sweetheart, Abby (Olivia Wilde). We learn about their relationship through fragmentary flashbacks with Will as our personal tour guide, leading us through the days during which they were happily together, frivolously arguing over the little things, like the quality of Bob Dylan’s voice, as they pranced around in bed all day. All the while, the film half-heartedly exhibits a fantastical, self-aware sensibility as Will and his therapist literally enter into these flashbacks to comment on them with some cutesy, newfound perspective.
Another section of the film features Olivia Cooke as Will and Abby’s daughter, Dylan (named for Bob Dylan, obviously), a reckless 21-year-old punk rocker living with her grandfather (Mandy Patinkin). Oh, and there’s another portion of the film that takes place across the Atlantic in the Andalusian countryside with Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Isabel (Laia Costa), a happy couple struggling to get by. Javier spends his days working hard as a laborer, picking olives on a plantation owned by the benevolent, but troubled, Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas). In the tradition of the countless other ensemble-driven, sprawling dramas like Short Cuts or Magnolia, Life Itself attempts to weave these various lives and plots together into a cohesive narrative, decisively failing in spectacular fashion.
Joel Coen once described directing as “tone management,” which is probably something writer/director Dan Fogelman (This is Us, Danny Collins) should have considered before attempting to film this anomalously distasteful mishmash of grating glibness and saccharine, faux-profundity. You can tell from the trailers that the film would air on the maudlin, but frankly, I wasn’t prepared for the countless montages of couples embracing and playfully roughhousing with soft-rock playing in the background (the kind you’d expect to hear on a loop at Starbucks). In between these mushy sequences, characters unexpectedly break into monologue, eloquently expressing in screenwriter-perfect sentences entire backstories, the nature of their neuroses, and/or some pseudo-philosophical truths about the nature of our existence, like when Abby proudly proclaims, “The only truly reliable narrator is life itself!”
Littered throughout Life Itself are lines of this kind, as characters come to revelations about the nature of life and tragedy that just seem so corny and obvious. Everyone speaks in aphorisms, and the end result often feels like the filmic equivalent of an inspirational office poster. As such, almost none of the characters in the film are, in fact, characters; they’re caricatures, archetypical embodiments of certain types of people: the heartbroken New York writer, the steely psychiatrist, the generous grandfather, the punkish young adult, the immaculate Spanish mother, the headstrong day laborer, etc.
Fogelman’s weepy sentimentality gives way to the film’s disastrous tonal incoherence, as he attempts to supplement the heaviness of the narrative with some lighthearted humor that only ever comes across as cloying—for instance, the fact that Will and Abby’s dog is named Fuckface (really). He also employs the most obvious metaphors to get his unremarkable points across, like when Will enters a revolving door and continues to aimlessly spin around and around without exiting. In truth, the image of Will in the revolving door better encapsulates the experience of watching Life Itself—it spins you around, sending you back and forth in time with a smattering of characters, all the while adding bleak twists and turns to the story that are ultimately in service of nothing. By the time the end credits roll, you’ll realize that you’re in the same place you were when it started.
Featured Image by Amazon Studios