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Non-Review Review: Life Itself

Life Itself is a spectacular disaster.

There’s an incredible amount of ego on display in Life Itself, which makes a certain amount of sense. It is an auteur project from Dan Fogelman, written and directed by the guy responsible for This is Us. It is the kind of adult-centric drama that people don’t really make anymore, from the mind responsible for one of the biggest television hits of the decade. On paper, it is easy to see why there was a bidding war over Life Itself on the festival circuit, major studios tripping over one another to offer the largest cheque.

A pregnant pause.

Watching the film, of course, it is easy to see why Life Itself ended up as a cinematic footnote. It was dumped at the United States box office, dead on arrival. It limped into the United Kingdom with a simultaneous theatrical and television release on Sky One, a strategy usually reserved for enjoyable nonsense like Final Score. There is a reason for this. In Life Itself, ego gives way to indulgence. There is an incredibly and obnoxious smugness to Life Itself, the confidence of a truism scrawled clumsily on a beer mat, punctuated by several exclamation marks and underlined for emphasis.

Life Itself watches like the work of an over-eager film student motivated primarily by the profundity of their own insight, having assembled an impressive cast and offering a globetrotting story. Unfortunately, Life Itself is decidedly less fun than the best of those pseudo-profound philosophical treatises, delivered with a suffocating sense of its own self-importance.

Some significant (An)tonal issues.

The alarm bells sound quite early in Life Itself, when the film introduces the first of its primary characters. Oscar Isaac plays Will Dempsey, a struggling screenwriter with a Tarantino fetish and a mountain of unresolved issues. The Tarantino reference is important, both implicitly as a temporal touchstone and explicitly as a frame of reference for Fogelman’s sprawling generational epic that frequently moves backwards and forwards in time as it charts the history of Will’s family.

Early in the film, it is revealed that Will and his wife, Abby, were planning to write a “Sam Jackson unreliable narrator script”, which they would approach “like a husband and wife Tarantino.” In case the audience doesn’t get that Will and Abby really like Quentin Tarantino, one sequence involves them going to a fancy dress party as Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction. More than that, Fogelman actually convinces Jackson to narrate an early stretch of the film, written to evoke Tarantino’s knowing self-aware film-referencing prose.

Not Wilde about it.

Jackson struggles to settle on a hero for the narrative, eventually focusing on Will’s therapist. “Now, like any great hero, our hero wasn’t perfect,” Jackson offers. “She smoked, first of all. Which they normally don’t let you show in movies any more, even though we all still smoke sometimes. You know you smoke sometimes. You and the wife have a date night, you each have two martinis and are feeling wild, so you buy a pack of smokes on the way home and you each smoke one in the 7-11 parking lot.” Jackson only has a small role in Life Itself, but that dialogue sets a tone.

Tarantino is a hugely influential director, whose work inspired an entire generation of late nineties indie filmmakers, and his work echoes through projects as distinct and diverse as Go! or Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead. Indeed, the recent release of Bad Times at the El Royale suggests that Tarantino still looms large for many young(ish and mostly male) film writers and directors, defining the way that they approach writing.

Pug drunk love.

Of course, there is one drawback to Tarantino’s influence. Very few writers can write Tarantino dialogue like Tarantino. Indeed, many of those writers trying to channel Tarantino are insufferable. Tarantino’s writing has a distinct sound that lends itself to impersonation and adoption by other writers, but there’s also a great deal of skill and craft involved that is easy to miss amid the swear words and the pop culture references. Bad impersonations take the swear words and the pop culture references, but miss that skill and craft entirely.

Life Itself is a bad impression in this respect. At one point, a character is hit by a bus. The audience sees the character get hit by the bus. There is no way for the audience to miss the character getting hit by the bus. In fact, the bus collision was heavily signposted by having the character walk out into the middle of the road and stand there for thirty seconds, which is cinematic shorthand for “this character is going to get hit by a bus.” However, when the character gets hit by a bus, Life Itself still has Jackson declare, “Holy sh!t! She just got straight-up run over by a bus.”

Ther(apy) we go again…

Even beyond the awkward Tarantino influence, Life Itself presents a number of red flags. Most obviously it is a story about writers. Life Itself begins and ends with writers, albeit two different kinds of writers. Writing about writers is tough, because everybody writing those scripts is a writer themselves. It is easy for such writing to become indulgent or smug or self-satisfied. There are obvious exceptions, of course, like Adaptation or Almost Famous, but as a general rule it is something that needs to be done carefully. Writers, after all, love writers a lot more than regular people do.

Life Itself demonstrates no care or restraint in its portrayal of writing. Although Will eventually “gave up on his Sam Jackson unreliable narrator script”, the film is so in love with the idea that it applies it to the rest of the film simply substituting in another voice for Jackson. The tone remains relatively consistent; knowing, insistent, smug; convinced of its own intelligence. All of the characters in Life Itself are convinced of their own profundity, and the movie is proud of itself for imbuing them with it.

A woof watch.

This most obvious, with the character of Abby. “She was nurturing and beautiful,” the narrator tells the audience of Abby, who is defined largely in relation to Will. “Abby Dempsey was perfect.” This is all that the audience knows about Abby at this point, that she exists largely to be loved by Will with an intensity that is defined as “stalkerish.” Abby has little agency outside of Will, primarily seen through his eyes and defined in terms of what he needs her to be at any given moment.

At one point, Will walks his therapist through Abby’s life. However, it is all framed in terms of Abby’s relationship with him. Even the meeting of Abby’s parents is defined by how it affected Will. “So strange to think about it,” he muses. “How a completely random moment involving peanut butter – a moment that happened way before I was born – would shape my entire life.” There is no consideration given to Abby herself, or her own internal life. There are moments when Will comes close to contemplating it, but shrugs it off. She was “nurturing and beautiful.” That’s what counts.

Oh Mandy, you came and you gave without taking.

Abby is beautiful and magical, played by Olivia Wilde in a thankless role. What little profundity that Life Itself attempts to offer Abby is offered as an earnest and solemn gift. At one point, she rushes into a room where Will is drinking from a keg, convinced that he has cracked the universe open. “I’m going to argue that every narrator is, by its very definition, unreliable. Because when you tell a story there’s always an essential distance between the story itself and the telling of the story. Therefore, every story that has ever been told is unreliable.”

This is offered as a moment of wide-eyed clarity, a grand epiphany about the way in which existence works. Of course, it is just a string of words chained together to argue something that audiences have understood for centuries, to the point that modern films like I, Tonya or Vice don’t need to have a wide-eyed college student explain it to the audience. Wilde does the best she can to make the thesis statement “the only truly reliable narrator is life itself” work. It is heartbreaking.

Abby never feels like a person. She never feels fully formed. She is an object of curiousity for the film and a mouthpiece for its pseudo-profundity. The film only sees her through the male gaze, through the eyes of Will. (After all, Jackson’s narration above assumes that the audience is male.) Recounting how her uncle physically and sexually abused her, Will boasts to his therapist, “It’s like a movie, right? I always picture a young Natalie Portman playing her.”

Will’s obsession with Abby is downright toxic. He comes on far too strong. He has no respect for physical or emotional boundaries. Before he asks her out on a date, he tells her that he will never love another woman. The film itself likens him to a stalker. However, all of this is presented as flattering to Abby. Will’s love of Abby is never explored in terms of her experiences, but as a validation of Will himself. “Sometimes it scares me, just how much you feel,” Abby states at one point. “I may not be equipped to be loved this much.”

Worlds apart.

There are moments when it seems like Life Itself might understand how incredibly horrible Will Dempsey is, but these are fleeting. Indeed, Will’s relationship to Abby establishes a template for how Life Itself sees relationships between men and women. Men exist to worship and support women, and to be validated by them in return. Women exist largely to validate and indulge the men around them. It is reflected in a number of threads throughout the film, from Will’s relationship with his therapist to Irwin’s relationship with Dylan.

This is a very privileged perspective, and that privilege runs through Life Itself. It really bubbles to the surface again in a later story focusing on Antonio Banderas as Vincent Saccione. Saccione is a wealthy man who inherited money from a father that he hated, and who owns a large olive oil plantation in Spain. Saccione is introduced inviting Javier González to his mansion. Saccione notes that the two men have never said more than a few words to one another. Saccione then proceeds to monologue at length to Javier about his childhood and his history, as Javier just listens.

To Javier and to Javier not.

Again, there are moments when it feels like Life Itself might demonstrate self-awareness. Javier is uncomfortable that this much wealthier man has dragged him to this house to unburden himself, and is wary of the wealthier man’s objectives. There is a sense of indulgence in Saccione’s behaviour, a recurring suggestion that Saccione is only allowed to do things like this because he is rich and because he is powerful and because he lacks any awareness of anything outside himself. Javier refuses to surrender himself to Saccione, and says as much, politely.

It is a moment that is cliché in its own way, with Life Itself affording Javier the sort of patronising awareness that such stories often afford working class characters, implying that life is so much more complicated for rich and powerful people while those with less wealth paradoxically enjoy a greater deal of freedom. Life Itself starts down this path, suggesting that Javier is a man of rare purity and virtue. However, it is only a feint. As with Will and Abby Dempsey, Life Itself is much more interested in the angst of the privileged.

Band(eras)ing together.

Saccione gets a frankly baffling character arc in which he effectively steals Javier’s family. As such, Life Itself affords Saccione something that he could never have otherwise, taking a great deal of care to paint Javier as an uncaring monster in all of this. Antonio Banderas arguably fares better than any of his co-stars with this material, playing Saccione as a character who is completely lacking in any interiority, which makes his character arc much more palatable than it might otherwise be. Banderas plays Saccione as a rich fool who stumbles into stealing another man’s family.

Fogelman is clearly drawing upon his success with This is Us in his approach to Life Itself. After all, both are epic inter-generational sagas that treat family history as an epic tapestry to be navigated and explored. There is merit in that approach, as This is Us demonstrates, even if it is a narrative structure that may not be best suited to a feature film. However, it is interesting how Fogelman transitions from one medium to another. What does Fogelman see as the big differences between film and television?

Barking mad.

Based on Life Itself, Fogelman sees cinema as just a less inhibited form of narrative. Listening to his characters talk, Fogelman seems most excited by the opportunity to swear. Will and Abby own a dog that they name “f%$kface.” Will gets to make a cutting piece of music criticism when he notes that Bob Dylan “sounds like he has a huge cock lodged in his throat.” None of this is funny or interesting. It just seems indulgent and weirdly childish, perhaps another homage to Tarantino, the director’s playful vulgarity.

To be fair, there are a few hints of good ideas in Life Itself, such as the idea of taking a narrative template traditionally associated with action films and applying it to a more gentle sort of romantic story. Life Itself initially seems to tease the idea of a straight-up emotional Tarantino-style romantic epic, which is an audacious idea, and would be interesting to develop. The only problem is that the structure plays to Fogelman’s worst impulses, serving as an excuse for having his male characters talk in obnoxious monologues while pushing the women to the edge of the frame.

Life Itself may not be an unreliable narrator, but it is an unsatisfying one.

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