Life Itself (2018)
Director – Dan Fogelman
Writer – Dan Fogelman
Starring – Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening
Rating – R
Genre – Drama, Romance
Metascore – 21/100
Rotten Tomatoes – 12%
From the same writers who brought the emotionally heavy, audience favorite This Is Us, the film Life Itself attempts a similar goal. Both want viewers to laugh, cry, and appreciate the essence of life. Both deal (somewhat honestly) with tragedy and the effect tragedy can have upon a person. And both are hoping you buy into the final message—the belief that life, though challenging, is beautiful and meaningful. Yet, where This Is Us finds smooth sailing, Life Itself sinks.
Life Itself is a film yearning for the same emotional impact as a Bob Dylan album with the cinematic flair of a Tarantino film. References to both are overt and replete in the film. Granted, it doesn’t do either much justice. Bob Dylan is a poet, a master of his art. The screenplay, especially the monologues, is not poetic with the same level of expertise and inspiration. It’s more like using a hammer for a heart surgery than a scalpel. The film is still terribly sad, but hammers don’t fix your heart—scalpels do. And, when it comes to references to Tarantino films (e.g., voice-over narration, timeline jumps, title cards), the film only reminds me I’m watching something less. At the end of Pulp Fiction I wanted to watch it again. And again. And again. That was not the case at the end of Life Itself.
In a film with several protagonists, it can be hard to write them well enough to evoke empathy for each one. I only felt connection with two of them, possibly three. There’s not a lot to grab onto during the initial story. By the final story (there are five interconnected stories throughout the film), I was ironically less empathetic for the final character than for any of the ones who came before. The result of these blunders left the emotional meat of each character’s respective plotlines on the table.
Now, I won’t critique Life Itself merely for being a melodrama. I will, however, say it wasn’t a very good one. Any time the film pulled at the heartstrings, it fumbled the moment with monologues. The most telling instance is the final dual-monologue during the end of the film. When all has been shown, when the final thought, the final punctuation at the end of the whole story comes at last, the film doesn’t give us one, but two (!) excessively flowery monologues. The film suffers from this failure to tell instead of show. What could have redeemed this film was some subtlety.
Life Itself suffers from trying to do too much in too little time. It tried to lift the emotional weight of far too many tragedies and instead revealed its weakness. It tried to emulate the mastery of Bob Dylan and Quentin Tarantino. It tried to capture the same magic of This Is Us. It tried and failed.
Author: Matt Welborn