The best thing that I can say about Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself is that it may very well be a camp masterpiece along the lines of Mommie Dearest …once we’re far enough away from the present moment that we can laugh at this kind of bullshit. It certainly has the makings of that in the first five minutes or so — you’ll be shocked into stunned silence within the first few minutes, and you’ll wonder if you’re in the wrong theater, but, I assure you, that is actually how the movie starts. Fogelman, the creator of NBC’s runaway hit This is Us, is the Thomas Kincaide of the modern moving image, and he’s painted his biggest, broadest canvas yet.
You can see Fogelman’s TV experience in the film’s episodic structure, as Life Itself is told in chapters, befitting an end-of-film framing device that is so frustrating and ham-fisted you may very well wind up hating literature itself simply for its influence on this goddamn trash-fire of a film. Part of me wonders why the This is Us maestro didn’t just create this as a TV show, especially since every network on the air is wanting their own “emotional” soap opera for weeknights this year (including an ABC one about a rich Bostonian who kills himself): it so clearly wants to be longer that it rushes through some stuff that Fogelman would normally milk for maximum tear-shedding value, but then again, he wouldn’t have access to movie stars which I imagine is the whole reason this project came together.
See, you’ve got Oscar Isaac, overacting in a manic fashion to try and make the material he’s saddled with approach something resembling realistic mental illness, having stalked his best friend into marrying him and having collapsed when she finally left his creepy ass. Annette Bening’s there for a second or two, but if you blink you might miss her. You’ve got Olivia Wilde, who exists to justify the continual usage of “Make You Feel My Love” by Bob Dylan and throws the entire plot in motion when she walks in front of a bus. A scene involving her developing her college thesis is perhaps the most miserably pretentious thematic development I’ve seen in a movie theater this year. You’ve got Mandy Patinkin, who disappears five minutes after showing up as Isaac’s dad and Olivia Cooke’s grandfather. Cooke, as well, beats up a lady with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at a dive bar to communicate how she’s on a downward spiral. Oh, and you’ve got Antonio Banderas, who speaks almost entirely through awkward monologues, including one about his “royal fuck” of a father.
How do all of these disparate characters fit together, you ask? Well, all things are connected, man. Live, laugh, love. If you can’t handle me at my best, you don’t deserve me at my best — Marilyn Monroe. You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.
These aren’t characters, they’re Pavlovian bells, designed to make us sob on command at even the suggestion of some sort of recognizable emotion, and it treats the worst events in these people’s lives with a flippancy reserved for the bleakest of nihilist comedies. It’s like reading an Eric Roth screenplay but without the fun color and wit that defines his melodramatic work — there’s not a single thing here that can stand up to anything in Benjamin Button. And, funnily enough, Roth has another movie coming out in a few weeks — another melodrama that you might have heard of called A Star is Born, one that will make people actually cry from being close to its characters and suffering and celebrating with them — that won’t need to blame critics for anything, given that it’s already a massive critical success and will undoubtedly be a financial one as well.
Still, all cinema is manipulative by its nature, but Fogelman’s particular combination of treacle, platitudes, and the absolutely insane logical leaps needed in order to make his plot work justifies the word’s usage: Life Itself is manipulative, reductive horseshit, meant to wring the cheapest of tears out of you on a date night before you forget about it for the rest of your life. It may very well be the worst film of 2018, thanks to its particularly insidious nature, and in a year where Gotti hit theaters, that’s a massive feat.