Director Dan Fogelman’s much-maligned film has some real honest good intentions, but too often scenes are disingenuous. Life Itself is too self-indulgent, sappy, and overly sentimental for its own good. By the last third, it becomes manipulative and even tedious.
Forget the fact that Dan Fogelman ignited “Film Twitter” last week with his comments about a disconnect between white male critics and the types of entertainment he likes to make. He is responsible for one of my favourite romantic comedies of the past decade in Crazy, Stupid, Love. He established himself as a household name with mainstream audiences and critics alike with television’s This Is Us, a career peek. His new film Life Itself, though, is a serious misstep in his career, even if he didn’t piss off every critic around the world.
Life Itself is one of those films that always needs start in New York City (because life isn’t interesting in any other location), that has endless flashbacks of college sweethearts Abby (Olivia Wilde) and Will (Oscar Issacs) that wear different hair pieces with actors playing pre- or just-at-legal drinking age students with obvious crow’s feet, who then look the same age 2 minutes later without cuts inspired by Friends. Characters say inappropriate things for no reason other than to shock the audience that don’t necessarily fit into the story (whether it is Will telling his therapist he can’t jerk off to her or Will’s mom telling Abby that she always hoped her son married a woman who had dead parents, so she can have the grandkids to herself).
When a film is trying to be this weird for the sake of being different, there is a problem with the script not knowing how it wants the journey to go. Whether it is using the trick of the unreliable narrator from Girl on a Train or blatantly stealing scenes from Stranger than Fiction, or spending the next half subtitled while set in Spain, Fogelman has so many narratives going on that Life Itself doesn’t know what it wants to be. The only thing it is sure of is it loves to hear itself talk. And talk it does; it just doesn’t know when to stop.
The men in this film are all emotionally fragile, broken, and searching for someone in their lives to make them whole again (or begging the ones they have to do the heavy lifting for them). So, when Fogelman said, “white male critics who don’t like anything that has emotion”, you wonder if he was writing a film that he felt moviegoers were craving or making a statement about male film criticism? His film has some real honest good intentions but too often scenes result in being disingenuous to its audience. By far the best storyline involves Olivia Cooke’s Dylan and Mandy Patinkin’s Irwin, but it is abandoned too quickly. The film picks up where it left off as too self-indulgent, sappy, and overly sentimental for its own good. By the last third, it becomes manipulative and even tedious.
There is a scene early in Life Itself in which Abby is in bed with Will and she begins to explain how a particular Bob Dylan album was written off by the majority, and this was a giant “eat a dick” moment to his critics. Fogelman needs to be careful and not forget to entertain his audience who spend their hard earned money on his next film, or they might tell him to do the same.