“Life Itself” is not the worst movie I’ve seen of 2018, but it’s certainly the most disappointing. It’s one of those rare movies that has an excellent opening sequence that pumps you up to say: “Yeah, I can definitely get behind this concept!” I was psyched to watch the rest unfold. 30 minutes later, the action is over, the talent is removed from the screen, and “Life Itself” becomes a boring trainwreck.
There’s nothing wrong with the movie’s message. In fact, it’s one of the few highlights. Writer and director Dan Fogelman (creator of the popular NBC series “This Is Us”) asserts that life is the ultimate unreliable narrator. He’s right, and not just in this film. Life hits us with obstacles and tragedies, but also with unexpected hopes and joys. Unfortunately, this idea cannot be condensed into a 2 hour movie, especially when the coincidental sadness far outweighs the happiness. “Life Itself” eagerly piles on the pain, the hurt, and the tear-jerking sentimentalism, wasting it all in the first 30 minutes. The rest of the movie is sappy and predictable.
As Will (Oscar Isaac’s brilliant talent wasted) explains to us his failed marriage to Abby (Olivia Wilde), we’re given an innovative twist on the unreliable narrator concept. Will is mentally ill and misinterprets events, but he talks to the audience directly, so we’re given a clear enough picture of Abby’s tragic childhood and hopeful transition into adulthood. You think the movie would pick up from there while still providing us with clever 4th wall breaks. Nope. Will and Abby’s story comes to an end, and we’re whisked away into the Spanish countryside, where Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Isabel (Laia Costa) attempt to build their life. The stories are obviously connected, but the road we take to reach that connection is tedious and pretentious. When the first 30 minutes of your movie are fast and engaging, you can’t make the next hour and a half unbearably slow. It’s awful construction, and a big middle finger to your audience.
Let’s not ignore that this movie is basically trying to be the emotional drama version of “Pulp Fiction” (1994, Quentin Tarantino). It cleverly tells things out of order (until it stops trying), has quirky characters (until it doesn’t), and teases the unreliable narrator so much that we can only expect the unexpected (until it turns out our narrator is perfectly reliable, and we just have to accept it). There are also very blatant references to the Tarantino classic, as well as Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind” album. In fact, Fogelman’s script is so pretentious that it even tries to align itself with Dylan’s work, arguing that no one will exactly understand it. To say that “Life Itself” tries to do too much would be a major understatement.
On a technical level, there’s nothing to marvel at either. Again, the first 30 minutes are superbly edited to give us an intimate look into Will and Abby’s relationship. Plus, Isaac and Wilde shine with impeccable chemistry. But once we’re past their story, we’re treated to slow dialogue and needlessly long takes in a largely boring setting (apologies to Seville, Spain. This movie does not do your city justice). Add some uncomfortably claustrophobic cinematography, and you have a film that automatically feels ten times longer.
I’ve never watched Fogelman’s “This Is Us,” but I understand it’s THE television series to get hooked on emotionally. Its reviews are stellar, and I’ve read it treats certain topics like mental illness with an admirably delicate hand. My guess is that “Life Itself” is intending to clump together all of the themes contained within “This Is Us” and display them in a 2 hour movie. And therein lies the problem. TV series today are expected to contain in-depth character development and grand emotional arcs, hence their medium of having 10 or more episodes per season. That’s just not possible for a film like “Life Itself.” I personally think Will and Abby’s story would make a compelling short film, while Javier and Isabel’s segment needs severe editing to work in any sort of bigger story.
There’s very little value in “Life Itself” (absolutely no pun intended). After Will and Abby’s story ends, you can leave and come back to see the unsurprising conclusion. For a movie arguing that life is always unpredictable, “Life Itself” certainly is a predictable and dull mess.