The most generous thing I can say about Life Itself—a film written and directed by This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman—is that after watching it, I started crossing the street more mindfully. I felt so certain that something could and ultimately would kill me—a bus, a cab, a gun shot wound, old age, cancer, anything really—immediately and remorselessly, that I made it a point to give it a double scan before rushing past a busy intersection.
Major plot spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution.
It’s rare that a movie will have such a physical and instant impact on behaviors, but Life Itself, in all its overwrought tragedy and vulgarity, did. Not because it was honest and engaging, or that its central theme of the unpredictability of life itself (heh) resonated. It’s the exact opposite: a barrage of violent deaths within the first 10 minutes of viewing made the wholly unfunny film an exercise in prediction. Who would die next, and of what cause? They should’ve considered renaming it This Is Us: Final Destination Edition.
For the sake of transparency: I’ve only seen a handful of This Is Us episodes. I have cried during a few of them in the way I’ll tear up watching Touched by An Angel reruns with my abuela—there’s almost always loss, and the episode will almost always conclude with a prophetic message of joy. (I’m also a sap.) Television allows for these over-the-top narratives to work, because there’s space, and more importantly, time for multiple characters to develop, to love, and to die. That is much more challenging to pull off in a 109-minute movie. In Life Itself, characters are introduced and then murdered off without any real chance to get to know or even care for them. The strongest feeling the movie evokes is the uncomfortable sensation of watching someone die on screen and not really giving a shit, when it is very clear the ambition behind the project was to make us care. (This Is Us, in contrast, spent a season and a half building up to the singular death that defines the generational plot.)
Life Itself opens with Samuel L. Jackson as the unreliable narrator, following an alcoholic Will Dempsey (Oscar Issac) as he envisions his therapist getting hit by a bus. The film quickly cuts back to reality and we watch Isaac pour airplane bottles of whiskey into a double espresso, heading to his therapist’s office where he shoots himself in front of her. This begins to unravel his family story, which isn’t a great one: he falls in love with a parentless Abby (Olivia Wilde) in college, they get married, she gets pregnant, and then hit by a bus. She dies. Her unborn daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) survives and is raised by her grandfather, Mandy Patinkin (Irwin) as her grandmother also dies when she’s young. Eventually, she meets and falls in love with an NYU student from Spain named Rodrigo (Àlex Monner) whose mother has just passed of cancer. There’s more to it, and each tale is presented in 20-minute chapters written with the depth of an undergraduate short story assignment where the prompt is “fuck me up,” but it’s mostly a series of unfortunate events that increase with purposeless catastrophe.
The very faint light at the end of the tunnel, however, is in the sleepy second half of the film set in Spain, when we’re introduced to Rodrigo’s family—his biological father, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) embodies a quiet, hardworking machismo that results in the dissolution of his family. His inability to recognize his wife Isabel’s (Laia Costa) autonomy creates division, and it’s truly the only human moment in the entire film. It’s also the most inaction, which is something Fogelman would be wise to explore in the future. Life Itself could’ve avoided ridicule if it simply stopped doing the most and embraced a more realistic, mundane misfortune.
Last week, Fogelman addressed Life Itself’s now notoriously bad reviews by telling TooFab, “There’s a disconnect between something that is happening between our primarily white male critics who don’t like anything that has any emotion.” He continued, “Something’s happened with these 10 people who kind of speak in this ‘group speak’ and say [my work is] ‘emotionally manipulative’ every time they [see] anything where [my] characters go through anything.” I’d argue that it’s not emotionally manipulative, but rather, in its gratuitous attempts to evoke an emotional response from the viewer, it actually desensitizes them and ultimately fails. Women have quite a bit more sophistication than what Fogelman’s statement allows of us—it’s possible to tell an eloquent story of familial history without layering on tragedy in an exploitative fashion. That’s not cynicism, just fact.