In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on Cinema76.
One of my least favorite occurrences in life is when someone coyly asks “aren’t I the woooooorst?” after doing something pigheaded, wrong, or downright asshole-ish, as if by cutely acknowledging their infraction, it somehow makes things right. Well, it doesn’t make things right. I don’t care that you can laugh off whatever dumb shit you just did, because that was a dick move through and through. Even typing about it now is making my toes curl. Fortunately, this occurs very rarely in my life, and I can typically smell it brewing long before it happens so I can preemptively cut ties with the offender.
Enter Life Itself, an almost perfect cinematic recreation of this exact thing. A movie so brazen in the way it bullies the audience, so ignorant in the way it tries to excuse its uninspired attempts at gaudy emotional manipulation that its not even fun to watch in a train-wreck sense (see: Collateral Beauty/The Book of Henry). Life Itself is so insipid, so aggressively self-absorbed that for a few hours after the screening ended, I thought I may give up watching movies forever, lest I be subject to something as interminably unpleasant as this shameful, pointless drivel.
You see, my initial intention was to go easy on this movie, citing it’s blandly agreeable message as the one thing worth praising, but since the first wave of reviews hit the internet, writer/director Dan Fogelman has gone on to state the following in defense of his film:
“I think a couple of the early reviews that have come out about this movie feel so out of left field to everybody who’s part of this movie and people who have been screening this film for the better part of a year now to both fancy filmmakers, critics, and audiences. There’s a disconnect between something that is happening between our primarily white male critics who don’t like anything that has any emotion… Something’s happened with these 10 people who kind of speak in this ‘group speak’ and say ‘emotionally manipulative’ every time they (see) anything where characters go through anything.”
Funny, he doesn’t seem to understand the concept of a minority (we white males are far from a minority here in film criticism world), nor does he even grasp the concept of “both.”
Anyone who reads my reviews knows that I’m pretty allergic to identity politics. No, I don’t think that it’s a useless concept. In fact, I love the thought experiment that the term originally inspired. It is extremely important that we embrace our experience and try to understand how it relates to the way we consume media. It is important to consider the collective identity of the intended audience as well as the that of the storyteller in order to color both our perception and reception of the art in question. Sadly, the notion that we all have different experiences based on a variety of factors is often relegated to a more spurious application: it has become a socially acceptable way to tell people who harbor opinions different than yours to shut up.
“Of course you don’t like my movie. You’re just a race, gender, and sexual orientation!”
So when someone like Fogelman (who is the owner of a white penis, for what it’s worth) hides behind such a dumb accusation in order to defend an almost universally disliked movie, I must take umbrage. Yeah, I’m a white male, but my reasons for disliking this film are unrelated to my race or gender (and really, few movies don’t make me cry anymore). So rather than go on about how this movie “didn’t work for me, but I hope it works for you,” I am instead going to be honest. Life Itself is unrepentant garbage. I hate this movie with every fiber of my being, and you would be smart to avoid it entirely.
How to describe this pile of dreck… Well, it’s not easy. This is one of those Crash, Babel, or Magnolia-esque dramas where all of the seemingly disparate stories are connected in some type of way. In the case of things like Babel, the form is used to allow a filmmaker to dip into different cinematic styles. Say what you will about that movie, but it’s at least evidence of a filmmaker flexing his chops. In the case of Magnolia, it’s an exploration of melodrama and its ability to highlight human truths via exaggeration. In the case of Crash… well, let’s not get into Crash. That movie sucks. But it’s not nearly as bad as Life Itself.
Fogelman’s film uses the “everything’s connected” motif as a gimmick, and it’s a gimmick that wears thin almost immediately. And the way that it bounces from story to story without any sense of pacing causes the audience to be completely divorced from the characters on screen. It also doesn’t help that most of them die pretty early into their tale only to be brushed under the narrative rug while we’re shuffled off to the next act. Why? To drive home a message that the plot of the film doesn’t actually honor. Namely, that if life gets you down, you just gotta keep moving forward, because if you do, you will find love. Be it the love of a child, a significant other, or even a dog, you will find love.
According to the movie, you might also get hit by a bus, commit suicide, unwittingly cause a deadly accident, get cancer, or become an alcoholic and abandon your family. But don’t worry, your grandkids will probably be fine.
Our story begins with a movie within a movie, narrated by none other than Samuel L. Jackson. We soon find out that he’s not reeeeally in this movie, just in a screenplay that exists in the mind of Will (Oscar Isaac), a recently institutionalized young man, trying to put his life back together after suffering a tragedy. He discards his screenplay and heads to a therapy session led by Dr. Cait Morris (Annette Bening, who is just soooo much better than this crap). The next portion of the movie is Will telling his therapist the story of how he separated from his wife (Olivia Wilde) and lost his mind. We see this in flashback, during which the narrators of said flashbacks ironically interact with the scene, Ebenezer Scrooge style. It’s a clever device in theory, but it only serves to conjure the thought of better movies that use this narrative quirk to an effect beyond “narrative quirk.” I won’t say what happens next, but soon we move on to another story, based around Will’s daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke). She’s a troubled young lady who sings in a punk band. Things aren’t going well for her. And then we move on to Spain, where we follow the trials and tribulations of a working class olive farmer, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) who has been given the opportunity of a lifetime by his well-off employer, Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas). Then we follow his son Rodrigo (Alex Monner) for a bit. It is extremely boring, even though the entire movie is punctuated with bits of unexpectedly gruesome violence. Soooo much happens in Life Itself, yet it feels like nothing is happening at all. The old “plot vs. story” game writ large, with all the flavor of a rice cake dipped in water and all the subtlety of an orphanage fire.
It’s all very weird. Whatever, I don’t care
The ambition is huge, and I must say that I respect it, but in practice this whole movie feels like bullying. It’s downright sadistic at points. So yes, I will agree with Mr. Fogelman that his movie could be categorized as having emotion, but it’s not my demographic labels that cause my strong distaste. It’s the way in which the emotionality of the film is employed (see opening paragraph) that leaves me wanting. Life Itself beats us over the head with a bland, uninteresting message, all in the service of a grotesque pastiche of lazy melodrama performed by a team of actors and actresses who are so much better than the material.
There’s also a character name Shari Dickstein, and I wasn’t alone in the theater when I burst into laughter.
And really, Mr. Fogelman, Life Itself is the whitest, most white bread, whitey white movie I’ve ever seen. Sure the cast is relatively diverse, but this movie is WHIIIIIIIIIITE. Complete with dated Pulp Fiction references, monologues about Bob Dylan’s comeback album, and more misapplied quirk than, well, an episode of This Is Us.
AND WHEN IT ALL “COMES TOGETHER” AT THE END, THE NARRATIVE DEVICE BETRAYS ITSELF, AND THIS SPRAWLING STORY TURNS OUT TO NOT EVEN REALLY BE POSSIBLE, and don’t you dare hide behind the “unreliable narrator” refrain that your characters repeat ad nauseum, Mr. Fogelman. You already burned your “if you don’t like it, you just didn’t get it” card. Everybody gets one and you’ve already used yours dubiously. The reason why people don’t like this movie is not that it’s above them, it’s that it is well, well below them. Your movie, good sir, is terrible.
Life Itself opens today in Philly theaters. You should probably see something else.