Saturday, September 29, 2018
Life Itself (2018): A Review
A Rolling Stone review for Bob Dylan's 1970 album Self Portrait began with the infamous line, "What is this s-hit?" Given how the film Life Itself is fixated on Dylan, particularly his autumn masterpiece Time Out of Mind, to ask the same question about this film is I believe very apropos.
What is this s-hit?
Life Itself jumps through time and space more than a Doctor Who episode, so my synopsis is actually more coherent than the film itself, which is divided into 'chapters': The Hero, Dylan Dempsey, The Gonzalez Family, Rodrigo Gonzalez, and Elena Dempsey-Gonzalez. It covers three generations and two continents to tell essentially the oddest 'This Is How My Parents Met' story I can remember.
Abby (Olivia Wilde) meets and falls in love with Will (Oscar Isaac). She gets pregnant, which delights Will's parents Irwin (Mandy Patinkin) and especially Linda (Jean Smart), who happily tells her future daughter-in-law how happy she is that Abby's parents are dead so that she can have no competition for her future grandchild.
This comment, by the way, causes Abby to laugh and Will to just roll his eyes.
Abby is a total Dylan fan, trying to convert Will by having Time Out of Mind essentially on repeat. She lets slip that she is going to have a daughter, and Will knows what she wants to name their child. The fact that 'Dylan' can work for both females and males seems to escape them.
Abby is three weeks from giving birth, but she gets hit by a bus. This accident is essentially the Crash moment in Life Itself, tying all our stories together.
Will is devastated to where he's institutionalized in an asylum and is barely out, forced to daily sessions with Dr. Cait Morris (Annette Bening). In the end, Will blows his brains out in her office.
We then move on to Dylan Dempsey (Olivia Cooke), Will and Abby's daughter, who has grown up to be a surly punk rocker fronting the band PB&J and doing the worst cover of Make You Feel My Love in human history (and I say this as someone who dislikes the Garth Brooks version). She's still struggling with the deaths of both her parents and her grandmother, and even sees visions of the accident that killed her mother.
She also sees what her father saw but which would be hard for her to verify: a little boy on the bus staring at the accident. This ties in to the rest of the movie, and that takes us to sunny Spain.
Olive oil impresario Saccione (Antonio Banderas) notices that one of his olive pickers not only picks by hand versus raking the olives, but also whistles while he works. This employee, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) attracts Saccione's attention, but surprisingly it is not sexual. Instead, he asks Javy to be the overseer, which he agrees to on the condition that he get no money and can keep whistling.
Javy now can marry Isabel (Laia Costa) and they have a son, Rodrigo, nicknamed 'Rigo'. Soon Javier gets antsy about all the attention Saccione pays to both Rigo and Isabel, so Javier does what he has never done in his life: take a vacation, and he takes them to the one place Rigo has dreamed of going: New York. They get on the bus, and cheerful, friendly Rigo starts going around the bus saying 'Hola' to everyone, including the bus driver, who is distracted enough to not notice a pregnant woman standing in the middle of the street who herself does not notice the bus heading her way.
Rodrigo is traumatized by all this, but his parents can't afford therapy. Saccione, however, can. Javier and Isabel, whom he calls 'Bella', soon start drifting apart and Javy becomes an alcoholic who abandons his family in exchange for Saccione taking care of Bella and Rigo. No mention of whether Javy doesn't mind Saccione sleeping with his wife.
Rigo (Alex Monner) grows up and despite his mother's cancer goes reluctantly to New York University. Here he finds a casual girlfriend, the airhead Shari Dickstein (Isabel Durant) who constantly confuses him with American culture, culminating in her 'April Fools joke' about being pregnant. To Shari's surprise, Rodrigo dumps her.
As he runs at night after learning of his mother's death, he encounters Dylan on the bus bench.
Eventually we learn that this story is narrated by their daughter, Elena Dempsey-Gonzalez (Lorenza Izzo) as she reads from her book, Life Itself.
Life Itself comes from writer/director Dan Fogelman, creator of the television show This Is Us. I have not seen This Is Us but I understand that it is very popular. It also has what I understand are some common This Is Us tropes: dead parents and time-shifting from past to present.
Judging from Life Itself (and probably This Is Us), Fogelman has a serious fixation on dead parents. Let's run the list:
Abby's parents are dead. We are told that in the accident that killed them, the seven-year-old Abby had to stare at her father's decapitated head for an hour before she was rescued.
Dylan's parents are dead: Abby got hit by a bus, Will blew his brains out in his therapist's office.
Saccione's parents are dead. He goes into a long and rambling story about how his Italian father essentially hated his Spanish wife but died before he could formally divorce her.
Rodrigo's mother is dead due to cancer. Technically his father Javier is alive, but having abandoned the family he in a sense had no parents either.
I know that Life Itself made people cry: the couple next to me were moved to where I gave one of the men my napkins so he could dry his eyes from the tears at the end of Isabel's death monologue. As such, I little part of me felt guilty afterwards given how often I burst out laughing at what was meant to be serious drama.
I couldn't help laughing because the parts that were meant to be 'moving' or 'sorrowful' were so overwrought as to come across as comical. Take for example when Will 'tearfully' asked Abby to 'come back' (as part of his delusions, he kept saying 'she left him' rather than 'she died'). Isaac's performance was so over-the-top that it came across as almost a spoof than real. Even his suicide was almost comical, more for Bening's reactions than the actual suicide itself.
Life Itself is like if someone made a Wes Anderson movie and treated it as a serious drama rather than a comedy. The seriousness of Life Itself ironically makes everything more hilarious. This is a wildly misguided film: smug, pretentious, self-important. Its use of various tracks from Time Out of Mind seems to enhance Life Itself's pomposity, trying to piggyback from the darkness, despair and forlorn nature of the songs to make Life Itself the meditation on life and loss it so desperately wants to be and so desperately fails to be.
All of the performances are universally awful because none of the characters appear remotely human. They come across as caricatures, and I return to the same word: smug. Rather than elicit sympathy or romance, they elicit contempt, as if everyone involved in Life Itself thought they or their characters were much smarter than they really were.
It's awful to see talented people make fools out of themselves, but fools out of themselves they did make themselves. Isaac, I don't think, has given a worse performance in the entirety of his career: Will being in turns pathetic and unsympathetic, even when declaring his eternal, undying love for Abby. Wilde was equal to the task of matching Isaac, spouting gibberish about the 'unreliable narrator' as if desperate to get off this looney train. Her death scene is actually pretty hilarious because it's so obvious: she's standing in the middle of the street talking to Will, so we're waiting for her to get slammed by a bus. The actual accident, far from tragic, plays like a similar scene from The Spy Who Dumped Me.
Bening was wasted in a role that at least she tried to make real, though her reaction to Will's suicide was pretty funny. Cooke did nothing as the 'angry punk rocker who is really hurt inside', but at least her time was the smallest, so she was spared much humiliation. Monner just had to look confused about things, and Costa just had to look either happy or sad, depending on the situation.
Worse, Fogelman made a very bizarre choice with Banderas and Peris-Mencheta. The scene where Saccione asks Javier to be the foreman plays as if Saccione wants Javier to be his mistress. I genuinely thought Saccione was hitting on him. Having Javy end the scene by telling him, "My whistling is for me, and my big mouth is for the men" just makes things more unintentionally homoerotic.
The story ultimately tries to tie everything together, but ends up looking more hilarious: the idea that Rodrigo, the little boy who caused the accident would somehow end up marrying the child whose mother was killed by his unintentional actions is too outlandish and simultaneously predictable. We were waiting for Rodrigo and Dylan to interact even if it defies logic.
Life Itself is just so pretentious, self-important, and unintentionally comical. Perhaps it's greatest sin is abusing Time Out of Mind, even treating us to a Spanish version of Not Dark Yet.
Let's just be thankful we didn't get a Urdu cover of Highlands: all fifteen minutes of it.