Writer-director Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself, a woefully misbegotten melodrama about the interconnectivity between people, opens at an ironic distance, with Samuel L. Jackson’s cheeky narrator in search of a hero within the very film he’s narrating. After settling on the despondent Will (Oscar Isaac), whom he will soon admit isn’t a suitable fictional hero, the narrator follows the unkempt man as he pours booze in his coffee and stumbles into the office of his psychiatrist, Dr. Cait Morris (Annette Benning). Then we learn that Will’s wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde), left him six months ago and that Will, who’s been in a mental institution for much of that time, is mandated to attend these psychiatrist appointments, during which he’s led to examine what might have led to Abby’s discontent with the marriage.
It all seems like a fairly standard setup for a traditional weepie—until Dr. Morris is run over by a bus right in front of Will. But lest there be any doubt, Life Itself is leagues away from Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, as the horror of this tragedy is almost immediately undercut by a misguided attempt at humor when Jackson’s narrator, appearing on screen for the first time, announces he’s withdrawing from his voiceover duties and walks out of the film for good. (He’s soon replaced by a mysterious young woman whose identity provides one of many eye-rolling third-act twists.) And it’s then that we learn that much of what we’ve seen so far was from a screenplay that Will is writing and, in turn, the theme of the unreliable narrator is introduced to the story.
The film, after this lengthy false start, resets and indulges in cutesy flashbacks of Will’s courting of Abby—in which Isaac and Wilde ludicrously and straight-facedly play college-aged versions of themselves—before dropping the oh-so-heavy revelation that the bus accident from Will’s screenplay was indeed based on the real story of his wife’s death. And although Abby was very much pregnant at the time at the time of her demise, her baby survived. As if the near-constant tonal whiplash and cheap narrative rug-pulling throughout this opening act weren’t enough, Life Itself ups the ante, using this traumatic accident as a springboard from which to explore the myriad ways that humans are connected. And while there are brief moments of joy to be found in various flashbacks, it appears Fogelman believes it’s the moments of misery and tragedy that shape our lives, evidenced by his decision to spring off and follow the lives of two other characters directly impacted by the crash.
Life Itself dedicates the second, and shortest, of its five chapters to Abby and Will’s daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke), an angsty teenager whose life is surrounded by death. Yet we’re given little sense of Dylan’s pain or who she is as a person beyond her punkish style and a vicious temper that leads her to pummel a girl who takes her picture. Before long, we’re off to Spain for the next two chapters, to follow the story of Rodrigo (Adrian Marrero and Àlex Monner), a little boy who witnessed Abby’s death from inside the bus. And as the extent of the trauma spreads to both another continent and generation, Life Itself‘s stakes and ambitions expand rapidly and the film crumbles under the weight of its own pretentions. Perhaps Fogelman’s most laughable gambit is found in one of the many flashback’s to Abby’s college years where we discover that her thesis argued that all narrators are unreliable and that, you guessed it, the ultimate unreliable narrator is life itself.
All of this pontificating and overwrought drama is meant to convey that life is unpredictable and full of pain and suffering, but also that it, as the film’s second narrator says, “brings you to your knees…but if you stand back up…you will always find love.” Fogelman disrupts the film’s predictable pattern of misery at this point, connecting the seemingly disparate stories of Dylan and Rodrigo in a scene that so ridiculously jumps the treacle shark that you’ll wish a third bus accident would just put everyone out of their misery.
Somehow, all these transparent and egregious screenwriterly contrivances never tie back to the film’s theory about unreliable narration. Despite its title, Life Itself doesn’t revel so much in the joys and travails of life as it does in the shameless emotional manipulation stemming from the ham-fisted tendencies of its own maker. In each groan-inducing twist and pseudo-philosophical rumination, one senses the presence of a writer-director striving to make grandiose proclamations about the nature of humanity and existence without the self-awareness to even recognize that it’s his own gimmickry that becomes the film’s truest form of unreliable narration.