Dan Fogelman translates his popular This is Us series to the screen with half-baked characters meant to wring every tear you have by force.
“Life is a quick succession of busy nothings,” as Jane Austen once said in Mansfield Park. This is a quote applicable, both for being pretentiously employed in a film review but also for how it sums up Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself.
The film may be a follow-up to Fogelman’s 2015 directorial debut, Danny Collins, but it’s a testing ground for the man who created the NBC smash-hit This is Us, a series that’s made a killing off of killing… it’s characters that is.
But Life Itself does little more than prove Fogelman’s talents best serve the small screen, as he gives us a 2-hour mind-altering weep-fest meant to collect your tears, even if it has to wring them out by force. And make no mistake, force will be employed considering the only emotion you’re bound to have is total confusion at how all of this came together.
Told as a series of interconnecting stories, Life Itself details several generations of people in New York City navigating love and loss.
Almost immediately Life Itself comes off like a television series, from the rudimentary cinematography to Fogelman’s love of smudged lighting. Narration is heard throughout, introducing you to the utterly depressing two-hour take on Modern Family that’s about to unfold. Divided into chapters, the movie opens with a movie-within-a-movie that includes a near 10-second description on the type of “gay” a person is, read by Samuel L. Jackson as if he’s in Do the Right Thing. Many of the movie’s worst moments are supposedly “intentional,” and this haphazard introduction leads us to one of our main characters, Will, played by Oscar Isaac.
Will is depressed and suicidal because his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) has “left” him. The film’s first half details Will and Abby’s love story, though it’s particularly hard to tell it’s love considering how obvious it is that Will was mentally ill from the get-go. Fogelman, who also wrote the script, gives Isaac lines that are apparently meant to be romantic, but comes off as creepy. There’s even a pointed line about Will’s love being “reserved for stalkers.” His marriage proposal comes complete with a gun to his head, and instead of Abby calling 911 and running for the hills, she shyly tells him she might not be “equipped” to handle his intense “feelings” about her.
Despite being heavily marketed in the film, both Isaac and Wilde’s parts are frontloaded into the film’s first 30 minutes, a cruel bait-and-switch in the hopes of getting audiences’ in and trapping them. The two actors are cute, but their chemistry is never particularly compelling. The script draws so heavily on obsession as love it never stops to show scenes of the two sharing interests, talking about life, or even having sex. Everything is implied as being representative of “love,” so who needs to see these actors show it?
As Will recounts his relationship with Abby to his therapist (played by an offensively wasted Annette Bening), there is an attempt to bring up the film’s adoration of the unreliable narrator by taking scenes of Will and Abby’s last conversation and have the actors play it differently. Instead of a happy scene of romance it’s an argument between the two, implying that Will might be sentimentalizing their relationship. This could have been great if this wasn’t the only scene it shows up in.
But Life Itself isn’t Will and Abby’s story and the two actors are quickly punted to the side in favor of another “chapter.” (Really, this movie plays like Fogelman had five different unfinished scripts and decided to just bind them all together.) Will and Abby’s daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke) receives the next 20 minutes of screentime, barely enough time for Cooke to do more than sing a song and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The crux of the film, over half the runtime, is devoted to a storyline told entirely in Spanish. Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) is the foreman of a grove of olives run by the wealthy Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas) and both are in love with the same woman, Isabel (Laia Costa). The age difference between Costa and both Peris-Mencheta and Banderas is immediately unsettling. (10 years separates Costa and Peris-Mencheta and 25 for Costa and Banderas.) The young actress is wonderful, playing a worldly-wise mother and wife coping with a husband unsatisfied by his life and taking it out on her. She’s easily the only fully realized woman in this film, with a powerful speech to her husband that you’ll wish the previous women had spoken before.
Costa aside, the other standout performance is Mandy Patinkin in the incredibly minor role of Will’s father, Irwin. Much like the film’s sole reinterpretation of Abby and Will’s relationship, Patinkin gets a moment with his young granddaughter giving a speech about how much he wants to live for her. It’s a brief moment but it proves why Patinkin is such a wondrous performer… if only he wasn’t quickly removed from the narrative as well.
Make no mistake, Life Itself is one of the most emotionally manipulative movies out there. It’s actually funny that Fogelman enjoys referencing Tarantino so much in this movie because the script kills off more characters than Reservoir Dogs. The film’s theme is presumably about appreciating life and finding the love within, but it does that by reminding us that we’re all incredibly fragile. Death happens so flippantly that you might be confused into thinking this is a Final Destination film.
The problem is not that people die indiscriminately, or that the film has bizarre definitions of love and the autonomy of women. Life Itself’s greatest problem is it doesn’t bother to flesh out the lives of its characters. You hardly care about Will and Abby, let alone whether they live or die. For Fogelman, the only reason to care about anyone is because they’ve died. Or because they lived a horrific life before they died; the amount of terrible things (death, sexual abuse) that is casually tossed out and laid on the film’s female characters is equally terrible.
You’re meant to feel bad because it’s so sad, but it’s only sad because the script demands you feel sad. It’s as if Dan Fogelman is standing in the corner saying, “if you don’t cry it means you’re going to Hell.”
Oh, and the film’s grand twist? A hollow stapling of everything that makes little sense and by the time it comes due, you’re just relieved to know the credits are close.
Life Itself proves Dan Fogelman should stick to what he knows. Maybe in a long-form series like This is Us characters can be created, allowed to breathe and transform. Here, it’s two hours of watching amazingly talented actors make a string of short films.
Sell this as a miniseries and you might have something. John Lennon said “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” so with that in mind… plan to see something else.