Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 118 minutes
Directed by: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Antonio Banderas, Laia Costa, Àlex Monner, Isabel Durant
Throughout history, there’s been no shortage of crazy-cakes cinema. Within the last few years in particular, we’ve reaped the rewards of some incredible “so bad they’re bad, but sound good when you talk about them at the water cooler” films. Maybe it’s more prevalent now because we live in often-bonkers times, so our cinema is reflecting it.
2016 gave us COLLATERAL BEAUTY, a schmaltzy drama about three money-hungry people who hire actors to pose as angels to mess with their mentally unstable, grief-stricken boss. 2017 bequeathed us THE BOOK OF HENRY, a cloying dramatic thriller about a wiseacre, blowhard kid who dies from a brain tumor and, from the grave, in the form of his diary, orders his mother to snipe their sexually abusive neighbor. Both are quaint compared to the wrong-headed lunacy within LIFE ITSELF, a wannabe feel-good drama that does more harm than good despite how much of a laughable, misguided mess it truly is.
Writer-director Dan Fogelman’s feature insists on balancing the subversive and saccharine in ways that are completely insufferable and incorrect. Not only that, he also makes toxic masculinity appear charming and sexism seem acceptable. It’s as if the filmmaker listened to Bob Dylan’s comeback album “Time Out of Mind” (which is repeatedly referenced and utilized on the soundtrack) and thought he could write a film that embodied those same qualities. He failed. That’s not even the most excruciating aspect of this film though. This is a film where men are complex, dynamic heroes and women are by and large damaged goods, existing solely to complement the male journey.
Similar to Fogelman’s wildly successful TV creation THIS IS US, LIFE ITSELF also features a narrative revolving around a sprawling ensemble of characters, interconnected by a central through line. However, here he plays even faster and looser with the more audacious elements of his characters’ experiences. For example, a mother-in-law tells her daughter-in-law that she’s happy the latter’s parents are dead so she doesn’t have to share. There are no checks and balances to restrain Fogelman, like a writers’ room on a TV show where episodes can be a communal effort. The character-driven vignettes amount to nothing more than sickly, trite lessons about how we are the amalgam of past generational struggles and that beyond grief is love. These over-simplified messages might be passable if delivered with an ounce of genuine sincerity or honesty, but in Fogelman’s hands it all comes out hackneyed.
In the first – and possibly worst – chapter, we meet Will (Oscar Isaac). He’s been adrift since his pregnant wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) “left him” six months prior. Though, as clearly represented by his thick beard (a.k.a. clichéd shorthand to indicate trauma for male characters), Will is suffering from grief over the circumstances behind Abby’s departure. The details of his perfect relationship with Abby and their pup “Fuckface” (deep sigh) come to light in his therapy session with Dr. Cait Morris (Annette Bening). In one of the more alarming, expository backstories, Will reveals Abby is a car accident survivor, who, as a young child, was trapped with her mother’s lifeless body and father’s decapitated corpse for an hour waiting for rescue. But there’s more – she’s also a sexual assault survivor who shot the caregiver uncle who molested her. Attempts at meta and self-aware humor (like Samuel L. Jackson’s commentary track running over a tonally challenged opening sequence) underscore other problematic aspects. Fogelman dusts off the widely-abhorred Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, later “refrigerating” her and putting the onus of adjacent trauma on two other female characters. Also troubling are that Will’s masturbatory habits are posited as “quirky” and his dangerous, obsessive, stalker qualities are reduced to a cute affectation. Sentiments on “unreliable narrators” explored through Abby’s thesis also don’t land as intended – and are bound to have the audience’s eyes rolling, if not their mouths loudly booing.
The second chapter involves sardonic twenty-one-year-old Dylan (Olivia Cooke), who was conceived out of love, but has only experienced tragedy since birth. As a precocious tot, she longs to spout obnoxious dialogue that the 40-something male screenwriter wrote for her (“I want to live a big, great, fantastical life”). As an adult, her punk rock exterior is just a façade invented to cover the sweet, large heart she’d otherwise wear on her sleeve (louder sigh). Her greatest contribution to the overarching story is domesticity and facilitating the arc of Rodrigo (played in early years by Adrian Marrero and as an adult by Àlex Monner). Rodrigo’s backstory begins in the third chapter, which focuses on his principled, field-worker father Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). Javier’s pride-fueled machismo causes nothing but problems for himself – in his relationships with his wife Isabel (Laia Costa) and his wealthy employer Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas).
The fourth chapter repeats Fogelman’s previous mistakes, like minimizing the trauma of parental abandonment and throwing more women under the bus (this time metaphorically). Trying not to offend, Fogelman doesn’t say Rodrigo’s college girlfriend Shari (Isabel Durant) is Jewish (despite her Star of David necklace) – he thinks it’s funny to just call her “loud” and “from Long Island,” which is actually more offensive. A second female character is “refrigerated” to aid two male characters’ arcs. And then it finally ends on a groan-worthy, ribbon-tying cheat of a conclusion.
While Fogelman’s misfires here make for a stimulating discussion with friends after (try not chuckling after recounting how many times the title is uttered as profundity), his ambitious effort has gone horribly awry. If this is his life lesson on how films can’t mock sentimentality while simultaneously clinging to it, then so be it.
LIFE ITSELF opens on September 21.