1. An old friend of mine is a novelist, and she told me once of a great lesson her best college teacher ever gave to her. “In your entire writing career, you should only get to kill off two or three characters,” she said. “Death is the ultimate stakes, and it’s too cheap and too definitive a device. So use those deaths wisely.” Dan Fogelman, the writer and director of Life Itself, clearly never took this professor’s class. The word “life” is in the title, but death is everywhere in this movie, lurking around every corner, ready to pop out when it is least expected but most narratively convenient. None of the characters in Life Itself are interesting on their own, so Fogelman attempts to gin them up some fake pathos through death, either theirs or someone near them. He’s a Grim Reaper, slashing through everyone he can in a desperate crash course with your tear ducts. The movie is a shameless, relentless wreck.
2. It does require a certain mad ambition and determination to make a movie like this, and I’d be lying if there wasn’t a part of me that didn’t sort of admire Fogelman for the chutzpah of it. The movie is structured like Schmaltz Tarantino—the idea of a Schmaltz Tarantino is as upsetting in practice as it sounds in theory—in that it tells several different stories, some of which overlap with each other, some of which stand alone and some of which seem inconsequential but come barreling back into the storyline when you’d long forgotten about them. Timelines are skewed, scenes are shown out of order, characters from one storyline pop up in the middle of another one to narrate what you’re watching. There are actually multiple narrators, oftentimes showing up just to tell you that you shouldn’t trust narrators. In a vacuum, and in the hands of a surer director, this could work: Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! was a master class in this. But Fogelman, fair to say, is no Soderbergh. His narrative dipsy-dos and curly-Qs are just frantic tap dances trying to keep your attention and give the illusion that he has something to say. He pounds the table a lot but has nothing really to add.
3. So you have a burnt-out, mentally ill New York man named Will (played by Oscar Isaac so well that you briefly convince yourself the character makes any sense at all) who tells his therapist (Annette Bening) how he misses his ex-wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde), and then we’re off to Spain and a ranch owner (Antonio Banderas) who wrestles with his own demons and develops an attachment to a family that is not his and then we’re back to New York with some new characters and you’ll never believe this but they’re all connected. They’re connected through death of course, constant, omnipresent death, and also through, oddly, Bob Dylan’s 1997 masterpiece “Time Out of Mind,” specifically the love song “To Make You Feel My Love,” one of his greatest songs that was recently covered, beautifully, by Adele, though the movie, oddly, seems more impressed that Garth Brooks did one too. Fogelman has a Big Overarching Theory on “Time Out of Mind,” and if you were wondering what it is, don’t worry, he’ll make sure all his characters spell it out for you, explicitly. It is a measure of the power of that album that, after two hours of empty-headed characters pontificating about it, it is still perfect. You can’t chip a diamond, no matter how much you hack at it with a chain saw.
4. There is a certain solipsism in Life Itself, its endless barrage of coincidences and happenstances and the speeches—oh man, the speeches: This is a movie that corners you at a party and won’t stop going on about how incredible life is, man, particularly the life of the person who has you cornered. Again, you do almost sort of respect how blinkered Fogelman is, how utterly assured of himself he is here, how convinced he is that he is making A Big Statement about the world despite (rather clearly) having nothing of consequence to say. I am sure it all made more sense in his head, but by the end of the film, when he’s having yet another character go on and on and about the connections and the fathers and the mothers and the Eternal Nature of It All, you want to sit him down with an editor who can maybe chill him the heck out a bit. There’s nothing going on here beyond the yammering.
5. On the Better Call Saul podcast a few weeks ago, show creator Vince Gilligan gave some vital advice to any writer trying to tell a story. He said you never start with “wouldn’t it be cool if” a certain character did something: You don’t start with the narrative. You create characters, and then you let them walk around the world, and then you follow them. “Otherwise you’re never going to end up with something truly organic. Or ultimately meaningful. It’s doing something from the outside in instead of inside out.” Life Itself is a movie written from the outside in. It is a movie that wants to manipulate your emotions without putting in the work to earn the right. It is a huge grand empty gesture, two hours of a man peddling as fast as he can, even though he in fact has nothing to say. You have to give it to Fogelman: He never stops throwing everything he can at you. But be careful around that guy if you’re unfortunate enough to be in one of his movies. He’ll kill you or someone you love without a second’s notice if he needs to. He won’t hesitate. And he will kill again.
Director: Dan Fogelman
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Samuel L. Jackson
Release Date: September 21, 2018
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.