Edition 30 October 2018, by James Luxford
Dan Fogelman, creator of TV hit This Is Us, is once again focusing on families in this multi-generational weepie. Unlike its small screen counterpart, however, Life Itself is unlikely to remain in your memory for long. Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde play a happy New York couple whose life is rocked by tragedy, one that ripples across the years as it affects their daughter (Olivia Wilde) and a number of other characters such as a therapist (Annette Bening), and a young Spanish boy named Rodrigo (Alex Monner). The film is a bizarre concoction, purporting to be an examination of life as the ultimate ‘unreliable narrator’, but in reality the film spends nearly two hours trying to make sense of its own bad storytelling. Characters float in and out, and those who do make sense of what’s going on are punished for their efforts as characters are killed off in cruel and pointless ways. This, the film will tell you, is the message of the story – that’s life, bad things happen. In practise, it just feels morbid and cruel. It also feels misguided, to focus on the randomness of loss in life (as the story does over, and over, and over again) means the beauty of a lot of the characters’ journeys can’t be seen. The many talented names involved try their best to muddle through, but this story’s downfall is in its telling. Starting with a baffling device involving Samuel J. Jackson, timelines and plot points shift self-knowingly, with every twist telegraphed and explained with an off-putting degree of smugness. Gleefully implying that everything is unexpected doesn’t work if a lot of the film is quite predictable. Isaac and Wilde are a charming couple, wile Cooke gives it her all in a challenging mid-film segment, but the structure lets them down. Just as telling a good story simply can be very effective, telling a bad story in a convoluted fashion makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience. Throwing many random musings about life into a messy, unsatisfying pile, there is almost nothing to recommend about Life Itself other than an example of how not to make a film. Were the various parts stretched into a television format, it may have all made some sort of sense. We sense, however, that a bad story is a bad story regardless of format.