‘Life Itself’ Review

When you walk out of Life Itself, you do so in a daze. You feel like you are walking on air. Not because you’ve seen something artistic, or something life affirming, but because you’ve witnessed something truly, utterly, batsh*t insane in its badness. The film makes bad decision after clichéd decision after head-scratchingly awful decision, only to completely throw you off with a moment that’s so crazy, so shocking, and so unexpected, it’s actually kind of brilliant. And yet the fact that the decision literally and figuratively fails to fit in with the rest of the film only makes it more insane. Life Itself may very well be one of the worst movies I have ever seen, and yet it honestly has to be seen to be believed.

I don’t want to spoil too much about this film, in case you decide to seek it out for yourselves, but the gist is that the film follows two families over the course of several generations. The main thrust of the story is the relationship between Will (Oscar Isaac), a volatile and emotional man who is deeply in love with the troubled, yet “brilliant” (or so the film tells us) Abby (Olivia Wilde), as they meet in college and Will sets out to course his self-proclaimed “love of his life.” Meanwhile, over in Spain, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) is promoted by his boss, Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas), and uses this as an opportunity to finally propose to his girlfriend, Isabel (Laia Costa).

I wish I could go into more detail on this plot. I really do. It’s taking everything in me not to talk about it, because every decision is so insane. However, in lieu of a full analysis of each bad decision on display, I thought I’d share with you all a running diary of my thoughts, down to the minute, as this bizarre nightmare was unfolding. At the thirty minute mark, I realized that everything in Life Itself was hot garbage. At the fifty minute mark, I first considered walking out, something I never do in movies, no matter how bad. At the 1:35 mark, I realized that this film should be over, plot-wise, and yet there were twenty minutes left. And at the 1:40, I realized that this film didn’t care about its audience at all, and I grew unreasonably angry. Life Itself is not a film. It is a series of first drafts for twenty different films jammed together into one uncomfortable, unprofessional concoction of insane garbage. I mean, you really don’t need further proof than the twee cliché of replacing actual jokes or plot points with pop culture references – Will thinks Smash Mouth is better than Bob Dylan, their dog is named “F*ckface” because, I don’t know, it’s cute or something, and there’s an entire subplot about Will and Abby’s love of Pulp Fiction, despite the fact that I don’t think they’ve ever actually seen it based on how poorly they reference/interpret it. It makes every line seem overwritten and exasperating. Still, I’d rather listen to a series of poorly written rapid-fire lines than sit through some of the achingly extended sequences this film tries to shoehorn in to expand the plot. There is an early sequence that involves Will being drunk in a Starbucks that is honestly felt like the second longest scene you will ever watch. The only reason it isn’t the longest is because of a later scene, in which Banderas gives a long monologue explaining his entire life story. It’s not that Banderas is bad in the scene – indeed, his is the best performance in the movie – it’s just that the sequence is ten minutes long, feels like twenty, and because you’ve already guessed where he’s going with it, the entire speech is effectively pointless. The sheer uselessness of most of the film goes beyond cinema’s usual overindulgence and into the realm of personal affronts on the audience. And then there’s the creepy underpinnings of lines like, “Will loved Abby with a passion usually reserved for a stalker.” I don’t even have anything to say to something so tastelessly stupid. This is the type of poor decision making on display from writer/director Dan Fogelman throughout the film, and yet it creates what you assume is an air of predictability to the entire ordeal. And that’s when it happens: the twist. I will not say anything more about a major moment inside this film, nor about the plot of the film in general, because to do so would ruin one of the most batsh*t insane moments I have ever seen, and I don’t wish to rob you of that. All I will say is that at the forty minute mark of Life Itself, something happens that will truly stun you; a decision so ballsy and insane, it will go well into the world of terrible filmmaking and somehow come out the other side scot free. I cannot believe the film even decided to make this decision, and honestly, I respect it. I respect it almost enough to raise the film a whole letter grade. Unfortunately, the film immediately squanders this goodwill by setting up a second twist so predictable, it renders the entire second half of the film borderline unwatchable. In fact, so much of this film is nonsensically absurd, and so much of it makes no godd*mn sense, the only comparison I can come up with is that this movie is the illegitimate child of Collateral Beauty and The Book of Henry. It is truly and unequivocally a nightmare.

Of course, the only things worse about this film than the execution are the themes it haphazardly tries to explore. Specifically, I’m referring to the way the film tries to use the unreliable narrator not only as a plot device, but as a trope as well. You see, everyone in this film is interested in the concept of the unreliable narrator – Abby wrote her senior thesis on it, Will constantly talks about it, even the narrator is obsessed with it. I’m pretty sure the only reason they keep referencing Pulp Fiction is because that movie is about unreliable narration as well. Except while Life Itself would like to think its about unreliable narration, it never actually digs into the concept. It just uses it as a “clever twist,” hoping that by claiming it’s a takedown of the unreliable narrator and manic pixie dream girl tropes, it will actually be a takedown, as opposed to an egregious misuse of both. Even more confusing, I’m not entirely sure that Fogelman understands what unreliable narrators are. All attempts to explain it are muddled and incorrect, which is especially odd in the case of Wilde’s character, who believes that the trope is only found in mysteries – despite being an English major. Each explanation becomes more and more grating, insulting its audience with its incorrect condescension (it’s the “Um Actually” of movies,” and by the time the narrator declares, “If we’ve learned anything by now, it’s don’t get attached, because heroes tend to disappoint,” you will want to throw something at the screen, screaming, “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!?” And even more offensively, it thinks that all of this is “deep philosophical sh*t” – and we know this because a character actually says, “This is some deep philosophical sh*t.” Perhaps if the film had really leaned into the unreliable narrator angle, there could have been something deeper, and perhaps even better, but alas; none of it matters in the long run. But what really irks me about the film is its constant attempts to break the fourth wall, often in the most haphazard, unclever way possible. There’s an obnoxiously unnecessary opening involving Samuel L. Jackson. Frequently characters wander into other people’s memories, like some sort of nonsensical collective unconscious, only to comment on how weird it is that they’ve wandered into someone else’s memories. And then there’s the narration, which begins as hot garbage and only gets worse as the film goes on. Not only is her input unbearable, her descriptors will make your ears bleed. She begins descriptions about characters by saying, “Legend has it…” and she literally describes the wife as “pretty, but doesn’t know it.” Out loud. If it wasn’t clear that this film was written by a tone-deaf man, that would be your biggest indicator. Each word spoken by the narrator is hilariously wrong, and it all leads up to a coda that is so ridiculously bad, it’s borderline offensive. It’s so pretentious, and so hilariously bad at that pretention. This isn’t a movie, it’s a sh*tty knockoff of Magnolia. It’s one of those spoof movies in BoJack Horseman. It’s a douchebag college kid’s senior thesis (and I should know, I actually did major in English and Film). It’s…it’s life itself, I guess.

At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering, “Well…is it at least well made?” And to that I say – “HAHAHAHAHA!” Let’s start with the writing. Every single scene in this film alternates between being horribly overwritten to agonizingly underwritten. Sometimes it works – when Will asks out Abby early on in the film, there is actually something romantic in his clearly-authored monologue, although even then he is let down by a bad score and editing. But most of the time, characters just say their emotions out loud, like when a character unironically, completely earnestly yet emotionlessly states, “My parents died when I was young. It makes me sad sometimes.” Hell, the writing was so bad the audience I watched it with burst out into laughter several times, mostly during dramatic scenes. At least I wasn’t alone in my pain. Meanwhile, Fogelman’s first draft-heavy screenplay continues to throw cloying cliché after cloying cliché in our faces, forcing us to test our limits on terrible cinematic decisions. There’s a fake out surrounding a precocious child, a completely unnecessary child molestation subplot that is handled way too happily, and they even throw in a cancer-ridden parent for good measure. Oh, and as a side note for the parent – instead of using makeup or the usual camera tricks to demonstrate cancer, the film decides to just throw a rag on the actress’ head and have her cough a couple times. Claudette in The Room was more convincing in her illness. Meanwhile, the editing is never as clever as it thinks it is – in fact, it’s actually kind of irritating, considering it mostly just cuts back to show every single person every character meets like thirty times, for no real discernable reason. Furthermore, for a film whose timeline spans almost a hundred years worth of history, somehow every scene looks like it takes place in 2018. It’s a decision that makes little sense, and I’m sure it will inspire an endless array of jokes and discussions. And hell, even the subtitles look bad. However, the decision that perhaps pisses me off the most is the film’s use of “Make You Feel My Love” by Bob Dylan. Not only is the song a major plot/thematic point (in a way seemingly designed to see how far your eyes will roll back in your head), it is used over…and over…and over again. It appears as part of the score. It appears as sung by Dylan. It is used as a grunge cover. When we jump over to the Spanish plotline, it is covered in Spanish. It is used approximately fifty three times in this movie, each one more migraine-inducing than the last. I’m not sure there is one original idea in this film (outside that twist, of course, for which I say “GOD BLESS!”), and if there are, they are so terrible they should never have been thought in the first place.

Meanwhile, the acting in this film seems specifically designed to see just how bad all of my favorite actors can truly be. Oscar Isaac and Olivia Cooke are two of my favorite actors working right now, and the two of them are so incredibly terrible my jaw spent most of the film on the theater floor. Isaac in particular is the worst I’ve ever seen from him, and I sat through Robin Hood in 2010. From his bad drunk acting to his general disinterest in whatever he’s doing, every action from him seems forced. And Cooke fares little better as an angsty teen, a role she is most certainly far better than. As for Wilde, she does what she can with what she’s given, but Abby is such an unrealistic, over-the-top character, there isn’t much she can do. I guess I can give her credit for making the most of select scenes with Isaac, as the two do occasionally create something resembling chemistry. Meanwhile, it is clear from his very first scene that Mandy Patinkin does NOT want to be here. He’s so morose the entire time that I honestly think the film would be stronger by cutting him out altogether – although I’m glad they kept him in, just for the scene where, to show that he had aged throughout the film, they simply dye his hair a lighter shade of grey and call it good. Meanwhile, Antonio Banderas is damn near the only redeeming performance in this thing, even if I loathed his twenty minute olive oil life story – it’s nice to see him onscreen no matter the role. He’s certainly much more interesting than Laia Costa or Sergio Peris-Mencheta. Costa creates a cute, likable actress, but she doesn’t seem to move or speak naturally throughout the film (I blame the director). Meanwhile, Peris-Mencheta does his best, but even he can’t save the truly loathsome character he portrays. And I have no idea what choices Samuel L. Jackson or Annette Bening are making here, and I can’t tell if I love it or hate it. However, there’s one actress I need to address before ending this review: Isabel Durant as Shari Dickstein. I don’t know if it is the character or the actress, but the unholy combination these two have come up with is the most vile creation ever put on film. Equal parts sh*tty satire, over-the-top valley girl, and cruel mistreatment of a character will drive the audience nuts, surely resulting in several middle fingers being cast at the screen whenever she appears. Shame on anyone who allowed Shari Dickstein to be written, cast, or performed.

Every single aspect of Life Itself is bullsh*t. Its ideas are bullsh*t, its story is bullsh*t, its philosophy is bullsh*t, and its execution is bullsh*t. The entire thing is one steaming pile of cox excrement, and you can smell it from a mile away. Still, I kind of want to recommend it. Not because it’s good, or even enjoyably bad – unlike, say, The Room or Gotti – but because a few key scenes bearing some semblance of risk and reward create a Frankenstein’s Monster-esque creation. It gives you hints of something halfway decent, only to pull the football away from you, like a demonic twist on Charlie Brown and the football. Watching Life Itself and trying to decipher its message is like Charlie Day trying to figure out the identity of Pepe Silvia – it makes no sense, but is almost more entertaining in its insanity. I hated this movie, but somehow can’t stop thinking about it or wanting to talk about it. And if that’s something you’re into, then this is a movie for you. Otherwise, run, don’t walk, away from any theatre or video store carrying Life Itself.

F

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