Life Itself. The name alone seems to cue an extended eye roll from the cynical moviegoer. It’s a phrase that beckons notions of half-baked yet self-assured philosophy. The optimists among us may look at the cast list and decide to give it a fair chance. What’s in a name, right? Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Samuel L. Jackson, Antonio Banderas, Annette Benning, and Mandy Patinkin couldn’t all lead us astray, could they? Sadly, the apparent answer to this question is yes, they surely can.
The story is broken up into five chapters. The first begins with a detour into the imagination of the chapter’s protagonist Will, played by Oscar Isaac. This diversion is inexplicably narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, beginning and ending his role in the movie. Suddenly, the viewer is pulled into the real world and we meet a clearly disturbed Will in a coffee shop on his way to his daily therapy sessions. We learn the story of him and his wife Abby, a story that is not so much laced with tragedy as it is ravaged by it.
This first chapter sets the stage for the rest of Life Itself. Tragic events are poured on as if they are some kind of special sauce assured to achieve some level of sentimentality. At moments it feels as if Dan Fogelman, the screenwriter and director, made it his mission to incorporate every kind of death possible into each chapter of the film. Bus crash? Got it. Cancer? Absolutely. Suicide? Of course. The disasters are unrelenting to the point that they lose their punch. Fogelman seems deeply intent upon making his viewers feel something, but that goal is easily frustrated when he batters the audience into a kind of trauma coma. It becomes quite difficult to feel for the characters on the screen once you’ve been rendered emotionally numb to all of their plights.
What ruins Life Itself is its apparent objective. Rather than attempting to express some kind of truth about people or even simply setting out to artfully tell a story, the film seems solely intent upon making the audience cry. Of course, stories can be told successfully while intending to draw out certain emotions in their viewers (Fogelman’s television series This Is Us is a good example of such a work), but they must also be driven by another purposes. This film fails to offer anything more than a deluge of carnage to extract a visceral reaction from its audience. Life Itself does not seem to have the self-awareness or the genuine sincerity necessary to pull off telling a story that is fundamentally designed to pull at the heartstrings.
The true tragedy of the film is the actors that get sacrificed in the poorly conceived narrative. If there are any redeemable qualities of this movie, the credit belongs to them. Oscar Isaac’s Will moves through the world with a certain desperation in his eyes that is hard to dismiss. Mandy Patinkin plays his role as Irwin, the father and grandfather, with such charm that he very nearly breathes some life back into the movie. However, a couple of solid performances does not a good movie make. Despite their best efforts, the cast was unable to place Life Itself on their shoulders and distract away from its deficiencies.
All in all, Life Itself earns every single one of the eye rolls it elicits from the audience. Unfortunately, although the film is meant to remind its audience that “we’re all part of a greater story,” Life Itself does little more than remind its viewers that life is short. So short, in fact, that they probably should not be wasting it on this movie.