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‘Life Itself’ is an ambitious mess

Amazon Studios/YouTube

Writer/director Dan Fogelman’s latest film is embarrassingly earnest.

Life Itself is a movie so high on its own supply that it can’t stop tripping over its own feet. It’s a movie about love, life, cosmic connections, fait accompli, and how mysterious and wondrous the universe can be. It searches high and low for insights about the events that shape our lives and the lives of others—but it’s also a movie that thinks naming a dog Fuckface passes for cutesy character development.

Life Itself
“One

 

RELEASE DATE: 12/21/2018
DIRECTOR: Dan Fogelman
STREAMING: Amazon Prime
The story of a doomed relationship and the ripples it has across time and generations.

I can usually find some measure of respect for movies this unabashedly earnest. But this is borderline embarrassing—not for the actors, most of whom save a moment here and there, but for the audience. On some level, all movies are manipulative; Life Itself stands apart by constantly reminding you that it’s trying to manipulate you. It also wants you to know how clever it is every step of the way.

Life Itself tells the story of several couples over five different chapters, and how one particular event connects and affects their lives. It’s a compelling and ambitious premise that writer/director Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, LoveThis Is Us) fails to execute properly. The first chapter tells the story of Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde). In the present, Will is deeply depressed and Abby is gone; flashbacks show how that came to be.

Isaac and Wilde are charismatic in their performances, though their characters are insufferable. Will talks about waiting to ask Abby out because once he does, they’re in for the long haul. Abby wonders aloud if she can handle being loved too much. Will’s proposal is met with a lengthy delay, which in turn leads to pantomimed suicide—the hallmarks of true love. It’s a testament to Isaac and Wilde that viewers don’t write off the film immediately.

Throughout the first chapter, Life Itself hammers home the idea that every narrator in every story is unreliable. Abby—and by extension the movie—posits that it is impossible to find objective truth from subjective tellers. Therefore, Life is the great narrator for the story of everyone on the planet, and even that is unreliable. You can only trust in yourself, with Love as your compass. If that sounds like the musings of a college student getting high and trying to philosophize, you’re not far off. It’s the topic of Abby’s thesis.

After Will and Abby’s story ends tragically, the narrative zooms outward to track the reverberations of their relationship. The other stories feature characters dealing with their own hardships, but everything comes back to Will and Abby. It’s all connected, but not in a good way like The Wire or The Leftovers. Think Crash or Babel, movies trying so hard to Be About Something they come across as maudlin.

Amazon Life Itself review Amazon Studios/YouTube

Life Itself mines personal tragedy as if digging through couch cushions for loose coins. It goes about its business as clumsily as any movie I can recall. There’s a notion that movies get one big coincidence before they start to feel contrived. Life Itself is built on coincidences. The puzzle pieces fall perfectly into place in a way that will induce eye rolls. Fogelman’s script is too clever by half; any moments of emotional honesty feel like accidents.

This movie is not worth your time. It tells viewers at the start that it can’t be trusted, and they should heed the warning. Movies this emotionally fraudulent should be tucked away in the dark corners of the internet. You can’t hide from the horrors of life, but you can hide from the horrors of Life Itself.

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Eddie Strait

Eddie Strait

Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.