The NBC drama series This Is Us garnered legions of fans with what I like to call "gotcha trauma." You know, you're watching, minding your own business, and, wham, there's a twist that reveals something so devastating your tear ducts don't stand a fucking chance. Life Itself -- a new movie from the creator of that show, Dan Fogelman -- is like This Is Us on steroids. This is a bad thing. A really bad one.
Supposedly, Life Itself is all about how really shitty things can happen but love prevails and all of us around the world are interconnected by some cosmic power, but it's so manipulative that it just makes you want to pull your eyes out. The title comes from the college thesis of one of the (ill-fated) characters, Olivia Wilde's Abby, who argues that all art has an unreliable narrator and the only reliable narrator is, duh, "life itself." But in referencing literary tropes, Fogelman outs himself and all the tricks he's using to pull your heartstrings. You can't help but feel used.
Frankly, it's hard to talk about this movie without giving some of the insane plot points away. But here goes. It starts with Samuel L. Jackson narrating in a semi-Tarantino homage. That, however, turns out to be a fake out. Instead, it's narrated by an unidentified female voice that turns out to be related to the big reveal at the end. The Sam Jackson bit is actually a screenplay that Oscar Isaac's Will is trying to write. Will is in a state of deep depression because his wife, Abby, left him. Or did she leave him? Or did something horrible happen to her? Take one guess.
Will tells the story of their romance to his therapist (Annette Bening). They met in college, and he was obsessed with her to a degree that is pegged as being romantic but actually just ends up being incredibly creepy. The movie briefly acknowledges this, saying that he loved her "with an intensity usually reserved for stalkers," but basically brushes that away. He's Oscar Isaac! He's so handsome! She's a little weirded out by it, but loves him too because they both like Pulp Fiction, so it's all OK.
After a few terrible events happen, Life Itself swerves to Spain, where it introduces a whole new set of characters, including another intense young man (played by Sergio Peris-Mencheta) who loves a woman (Laia Costa) too deeply. That's because in Life Itself -- and maybe, unfortunately, in life itself -- women are there to suffer and men are there to either make women suffer or feel badly about women's suffering. This storyline, in which Antonio Banderas plays a lonely man with an olive farm, intersects with Will and Abby's during a fateful New York vacation. And eventually their connection results in the ostensibly happy ending.
Life Itself insufferably relies on quirks, especially in its first half. Will and Abby's dog is named "Fuckface." They have long discussions during which Abby raves about Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind. A tiny child talks like an adult. One disaffected youth (played by Olivia Cooke), whose identity is something of a spoiler, is in a punk band called PB&J that serves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at its gigs. The movie wants so desperately to be clever, and just comes off looking lame.
All this adds up to a film that thinks it's being charming and inspiring, but is instead merely a cruel joke on its audience. It's the cinematic equivalent of lying a banana peel on the ground to watch people fall. In this case, however, the banana peel is tragedy and the falling is crying and you can't help feel super gross about it all.
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