Spoilers ahead for Life Itself.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself because it’s such an unmitigated disaster from every perspective. It has the same schmaltzy twists that Fogelman has turned into his trademark after Crazy. Stupid. Love. and This Is Us, but they’re all in service of an absolutely repulsive script that rests on the notion that we’re all connected as long as a hack writer connects us. If that comes off as harsh, please know that it pales in comparison to the movie’s treatment of suicide, sexual abuse, and other sorts of trauma, which are either cavalierly dismissed or used as a springboard for bullshit catharsis. The movie swings between oppressively boring and wildly offensive, and it’s all in service to a script that would be laughed out of a Screenwriting 101 class for its obvious gimmicks and smug self-satisfaction.
Divided into chapters and narrated as a bad book that no one would ever want to buy let alone go to reading of, Life Itself starts off following romantic couple Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), although Will is deeply depressed and goes to talk to his therapist Dr. Morris (Annette Bening). Will then relates the story about unreliable narrators and how he can’t be trusted, but it’s obvious from the get-go that Abby, who was pregnant with their child, died unexpectedly. Will also feels the need to tell Abby’s backstory (women in Life Itself don’t get to be real characters; they’re either deeply troubled or saints from the perspective of the men in their lives), which involved not only watching her parents die in a car accident, but the fun detail that her father was decapitated by the steering column. Will then tells us that Abby’s uncle molested her for years before she bought a gun, threatened her uncle, and then shot in him in the knee to show she meant business. Then she goes to college, lives life trauma-free, and comes up with a laughably bad thesis about how life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Will then blows his brains out in the therapist’s office. This all happens in the first 45 minutes of a two-hour movie.
In its first act, Life Itself casually breezes through heavy topics like depression, suicide, sexual abuse, and other kinds of trauma without really engaging with any of them. For Fogelman, these little bumps are the “unreliable” part of life’s unreliable narration, the unfair twists and turns that life throws at us between montages of being happy and our flawed memories of our lives. It’s an abominable mish-mash of ideas that starts from a reasonable, if tired, place (flawed memories creating unreliable perceptions of reality) and goes to the dumbest, most offensive place possible every single time.
And then it gets so. Much. Worse. So Will and Abby’s baby didn’t die when Abby got hit by a bus after wandering into the middle of the street like a dumb-dumb, but she grew up without a mother, a father who killed himself six months after she was born, a dog named “Fuckface” (so edgy!) who died when she was seven, and then her grandmother died, so she was left to be raised by her kindly grandfather (Mandy Patinkin). Now at age 21, Dylan (Olivia Cooke) is an angry young woman who doesn’t get any characterization beyond being angry and young, and then the film shifts to the Gonzalez family. You see, young Rodrigo Gonzalez was on the bus that killed Abby, and was traumatized by the event, a trauma that ended up ripping his family apart because his father Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) was too proud to accept help from his generous boss Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas, who shows his acting chops by holding our attention with a dull monologue about his family’s history). 21 years later, on the day he breaks up with his girlfriend and his saintly mother dies, Rodrigo (Àlex Monner) runs into a crying Dylan on the street…and they fall in love and get married. I wonder if they ever had a discussion where Dylan’s like, “My mom was hit by a bus,” and Rodrigo replies, “That’s so weird, because I distracted a bus driver, which caused a pregnant woman to get hit by a bus. What a strange coincidence. Anyway, let’s go make a baby who will one day grow up to write an saccharine book about our families.”
There’s not a single honest moment in the entirety of Fogelman’s movie because he’s so wrapped up in the contrivances of narrative that he completely loses the thread of humanity. He can’t stop pounding on “Life itself as the ultimate unreliable narrator” so everything in his movie rings hollow, completely removed from the self-awareness that the reason everything is hollow is because everything in the film is either forced or callously represented. You get the sense that Fogelman doesn’t really care about anything at all, and views emotions in the same way a sociopath would—not as something to be felt, but something to be mimicked and manipulated.
If Life Itself had just skated by on schmaltz and a facile notion of life-as-unreliable-narrator, it would still be boring, but not outright offensive. However, the way Fogelman lunges for the heartstrings—not to create connection with his audience (his callous disregard for trauma shows he has no interest in reality)—and in such a sloppy, reckless way is what makes Life Itself truly repulsive. It’s a movie with open disdain for its characters, but still wants us to have an emotional investment in their overwrought lives. The constant dishonesty permeating every moment shows a movie that couldn’t care less about real human emotions, and just wants you to cry. Tears of agony do not count.