UK Release Date: 4th January 2019
Runtime: 117 minutes
Director: Dan Fogelman
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Olivia Cooke, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Laia Costa, Sergio Peris-Mencheta
Synopsis: A series of interconnected stories across decades in time, following various couples as they try to navigate life and love in the wake of utterly barmy melodrama.
Disappointing films are fairly common. Bad films, while less widespread, tend to arrive in reasonable quantities. A true turkey, though, is as rare and elusive as a masterpiece. It’s with that in mind I must report that 2019 has already delivered, on a silver platter, a turkey so rotten and festering that I’ll be stunned if anything supersedes its awfulness this year. The movie is Life Itself and, through the medium of Sky Cinema, you can experience its abject naffness from the comfort of your own sofa. Ain’t technology grand?
As with all of the most pretentious exercises in false profundity, Life Itself is divided into chapters that leap around through time, from Oscar Isaac‘s depressed, newly single bloke chatting to his therapist (Annette Bening) through to Olivia Cooke‘s punky tearaway and Antonio Banderas rambling his way through more monologues than a 24-hour Shakespeare marathon. The linkage between these chapters is desperately overwrought and ugly, giving off a distinctly “love, actually, is all around” vibe that doesn’t fit the glum cynicism of the subject matter.
It’s a glittering cast, presumably lured by writer-director Dan Fogelman, who has attracted plaudits with not too dissimilar material in his TV series This Is Us – not to be confused with the excellent One Direction concert doc of the same name. But there’s no invention on show here in a movie that jumbles its way through a series of melodramatic scenarios, wedging them together as if they will somehow become more than the sum of their saccharine parts. A sculpture made of marshmallows still has enough sugar content to kill a medium-sized toddler, regardless of how neatly the pieces seem to fit in place.
This is sentimental filmmaking through the medium of screeching soap opera, with every tastelessly melodramatic cliché ticked off, from suicide to child abuse to faked pregnancy to terminal illness. Characters are literally run over by buses at regular intervals. It happens so often that it’s effectively used as a scene transition. Only Isaac seems to have grasped the register of the material, squealing his way through every scene as a high energy maelstrom of tics – as if parodying the insanity unfolding around him.
But what’s most remarkable is how uninteresting the insanity is on screen. Life Itself is an exercise in madness as tedium, chucking so much wrong-headed stupidity at the audience that it fades into a sort of beige tidal wave of yawns that spreads from the front row of the cinema to the back. In my screening, a quiet scene at the 30-minute mark allowed the assembled viewers an opportunity to hear a man on the back row snoring loudly. It was the biggest laugh the film ever managed. By the time Banderas delivered a time-bending soliloquy about olive oil, during which I’m pretty sure I missed two Christmases, a birthday and my own funeral, I had all of the sympathy in the world for the snorer.
This is a film that is startling in its incompetence at every turn, taking every possible creative decision put in front of it and picking the worst possible option. Women are discarded when they’re not helpful to the men’s stories and all of the film’s people of colour are given relevance only when they touch the orbit of the white characters’ narratives. It’s two hours of vapid claptrap operating under the misapprehension that talking about Bob Dylan makes it an exercise in thoughtful sophistication. If this film had a beard, it’d never stop stroking it.
Pop or Poop?
I don’t know how Life Itself happened. But I know that it shouldn’t have done. I don’t know how it became a festival circuit mainstay last year. But it shouldn’t have done. I don’t know why anyone is choosing to put it out there so people can watch it. But they shouldn’t have done. They really shouldn’t have.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.