Life Itself tries very hard to be the Love, Actually of misery porn. It tells several interconnected stories, all featuring beautiful people in love, and shocking tragedies. This is the kind of film that has so much death, tragedy, and destruction, you spend the entire time waiting for an actual piano to fall on someone’s head. The film is written and directed by Dan Fogelman of the popular TV melodrama This is Us. Suffice it to say that the dude loves jerking tears like Trump loves self-tanner.
Critics have absolutely savaged the film—and of course they have. On top of the highly manipulative tragedies, the film has some pseudo-lofty thoughts about life being the ultimate unreliable narrator (a thought that is expressed out loud multiple times in the film and also written on the front page of a college thesis, in case you didn’t catch it the first time). At least the first part of the film actually addresses the unreliable narrator—explicitly. The second half is a pretty straightforward melodrama, although it screeches to a baffling halt when Antonio Banderas, as Saccione, tells the (tragic) story of his life—in Spanish. (Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with the scene per se—Banderas sells it—but it breaks up the film’s rhythms in a bizarre way.)
It’s hard to describe the plot(s) without giving too much away but I’ll give it a whirl. The first “chapter” of the film deals with Will (Oscar Isaac) who is reeling after his wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde) leaves him. In flashbacks, we see that Abby is your basic Bob Dylan and Quentin Tarantino loving “cool girl” and Will’s devotion to her veers from charming to obsessive. But Abby herself is the victim of multiple tragedies—so, so many tragedies—it’s hard to believe that she’s the chill, well-adjusted woman that Will describes. (Yes, I get it, Will is an unreliable narrator–or so we’ve been told over and over again—but the film is too shallow to really explore Abby’s psyche.)
The second chapter deals with Will and Abby’s rebellious daughter Dylan (get it?), who is being raised by her kindly grandfather, Irwin (Mandy Patinkin). The two have what I believe is supposed to be a cute ritual where Irwin takes a sip of whiskey and little Dylan pantomimes taking a sip of whiskey, and then they both give a satisfied sigh. This is hella inappropriate when Dylan is a little girl and not much better when Dylan is a disaffected teenager (Olivia Cooke), who follows the ritual by swiping Irwin’s glass and chugging its contents.
The third chapter focuses on a salt-of-the-earth foreman (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) of an olive grove who is suspicious when the grove’s cosmopolitan but lonely owner (Banderas) takes an interest in his family, particularly his pretty wife (Laia Costa).
The final chapter involves the foreman’s son (Àlex Monner), now living in New York and about to meet a depressed girl on a bench and, well, maybe you can guess who she is. (The answer is blowin’ in the wind…)
I haven’t even begun to touch on the pile-up of tragedies or the coincidences that keep this thing trucking along, but so be it. The real question is: Will you like it? I mean, maybe? If you’re the kind of person who really loves the easily accessible emotional beats of TV soap operas, you might indeed. It certainly has lots of great actors trying their best. And it’ll almost definitely make you cry. Fogelman has been defending his film against the onslaught of bad reviews (13 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes—yikes!), arguing that real people will love the film. Is it possible that film critics are the most unreliable narrators of them all?