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Saturday, September 22, 2018

Life Itself

Life is messy and hard, but Dan Fogelman's Life Itself (not to be confused with the wonderful 2014 documentary about film critic Roger Ebert that shares the same title) is messy, convoluted, disjointed, and just a real sad sack of a movie.  Throughout, Fogelman feels the need to spell out everything that happens, from the message he's conveying in a certain scene, to what a character is thinking.  And in case you don't pick up on the obvious dialogue, there's a voice over narrator to spell it out even more.  This movie is about as subtle as a speeding bus, which believe it or not, is a repeated image in this film. 

The movie is divided into four separate chapters, and takes a series of seemingly unconnected plotlines and characters, and shows how they are all connected to create that funny thing called life and death.  Despite the title, Fogelman seems especially fixated on the death part, as well as on the misery of life.  During the course of the film's two hours, we see and hear about suicide, a bus plowing into an innocent bystander numerous times, cancer, a little girl's father getting decapitated, and a young boy haunted by nightmares of a deadly accident that he inadvertently caused.  Just to add to the fun, there's a throwaway subplot about a teenage girl who lives with a sexually abusive uncle, and she has to shoot him in the leg in order to escape him.  This plot point really does not add much of anything to the film.  It's just there to add to the misery of the characters as they cope with loss, depression and isolation in the most basic and dramatically unsatisfying ways imaginable.

In the first narrative, we are introduced to Will (Oscar Isaacs), a man who is seen as an angry drunk who likes shouting about the genius of Bob Dylan in coffee shops.  He visits his therapist (Annette Bening), who he was appointed to after he spent some time in the hospital for severe depression.  The sadness he feels seems to stem from his former wife Abby (Olivia Wilde), who left him.  Or did she?  As we listen in on his session with the therapist, and view a series of random flashbacks that date back to his college days, up to his last days with Abby, we begin to get the sense that things are not what they seem.  I have to be vague here to avoid spoilers, but one of the key themes of the film (which Fogelman hits you over the head with) is the idea of the "Unreliable Narrator".  Not only does Abby write a thesis on this while in college and explains it in great detail, but the movie's voice over narrator further explains the idea of the concept.  All the while, Will's world begins to crumble around him right there in the office, leading to...

Well, let's just say that the second chapter focuses on Will and Abby's daughter (Olivia Cooke), who in a severely truncated storyline, grows into a morose and miserable young woman after all the tragedy she endured while she was young.  She's having a hard time connecting with her family, makes no secret that she's pretty much a junkie, goes off to play in a band, punches someone in the face while stuffing a sandwich in her mouth afterward, and then sits on a bus bench and cries about her life.  That's pretty much her story in a nutshell, taking us to the third and fourth chapters, which focus on a loving family living in Spain, and how the husband's boss (Antonio Banderas) becomes close to the family, and ultimately threatens to tear it apart when he gets closer to the wife and son than the husband is.  Eventually, all of these characters and stories come together in a way that is not at all clever or thought out.  Oh, and just to make sure he checks off all the things on his audience manipulation list, Fogelman makes sure we get to see a dog die at one point.  Again, not important.  He just wanted to throw that in there.

Life Itself is built entirely around putting its characters through the wringer as they deal with one tragedy after another.  Indeed, the tragedies, betrayals and brutal accidental deaths come so fast and furious here, you feel like you're watching an entire season of a soap opera crammed into two hours.  There is ultimately an uplifting point to all of this that is supposed to at least have us go home with some glimmer of hope, but it's handled in such a brief and haphazard manner, it doesn't lift our spirits, so much as it seems like an afterthought.  The movie wallows in pain and misery, while never really finding a way to connect emotionally with the audience.  Everything has been oversimplified, from the dialogue, to the way the film constantly feels the need to feed us how we're supposed to be feeling through narration or obvious visual montages.  It doesn't take long for the movie to feel like it's stopping itself every few minutes to point out the obvious.

Even if Fogelman has bungled his story and characters, he does show some skill with working with his gifted cast.  These are fine actors, and some are able to rise above the material they're given, while some have potential but are never given the time in the screenplay to grow or develop.  A good example is Mandy Patinkin, who shows up as the grandfather of Will and Abby's rebellious teenage daughter, and has a couple good scenes where he tries to connect with her.  Then we never see him again after that, which made me feel like both the character and the performance got shafted.  Oscar Isaacs and Antonio Banderas are good in their respective roles too, and probably come the closest to rising above the material and making the characters their own.  Unfortunately, the movie forgets to give Banderas a proper send off, and Isaacs exits the film too soon.

Life Itself so desperately wants to tug at the heartstrings, but it takes so much more than just piling death and misery into the narrative to do so.  We need to feel a connection with the people it's happening to, and we never do.  Instead of emotional, the movie feels cheap and exploitive.  Instead of tears, we feel used.  And instead of joy at the end, we feel anguish. 

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