Life Itself's banal philosophy make it a profound failure
Starring Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Alex Monner, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart. Written and directed by Dan Fogelman. Opens Friday at GTA theatres. 117 minutes. 14A
Life Itself frequently references Bob Dylan’s 1997 “comeback” album Time Out of Mind, suggesting the film’s writer/director Dan Fogelman was spinning it non-stop as he concocted this shaggy-dog narrative of random connections and tragic occurrences.
A better aural fixation might have been Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping,” also from ’97. It’s the song with the lyric hook, “I get knocked down, but I get up again.”
Which is kind of like the hapless Wile E. Coyote being constantly flattened by his own Acme anvil, but sproinging back for more punishment regardless. Keep that image in mind as Fogelman drags his anvil-bashed cast across decades and from New York City to rural Spain and back again. All in pursuit of a theme tediously expressed by central figure Abby (Olivia Wilde): “Life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator.” Uh-huh.
Abby, a graduate student, makes this banal observation her college thesis while she’s being romantically pursued by Will (Oscar Isaac), an erstwhile screenwriter whose Pulp Fiction-ish scribbles make for a confusingly self-referential and violent start to the film. (It’s initially narrated by a Very Famous Actor whom I won’t name here, but who says “motherf--ker” a lot. He really has nothing at all to do with the story.)
In fact, the whole film is rather consumed with itself, which is what you’d expect from Fogelman. He’s best known for This Is Us, a TV series about smart and cynical people saying sappy things about life, with only gimmicky links between their smart/dumb utterances.
So it is with Life Itself, in which the high-strung Will explains the tragic comedy of his existence to a very serious psychotherapist (Annette Bening), who insists she wants to know all about Abby, their yippy dog named F--kface and that funny-not-hah-hah meal the young couple had with Will’s parents, played by Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart. This is before Will’s version of the story is elbowed aside by plot considerations and by a female narrator whose identity makes for an eye-rolling reveal.
In between, there’s the much more satisfying sojourn to Spain, where we find the ever-suave Antonio Banderas as a wealthy olive plantation owner named Senor Saccione. As the grateful survivor of a sad family situation, he wants to do right by sharing part of his inherited wealth with his most loyal employee, a big sad-eyed man named Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta).
Saccione gives Javier free use of his mansion, providing the wherewithal for Javier to marry his girlfriend Isabelle (Laia Costa), who is described for no particular reason as “the fourth-prettiest of six sisters.” In due course, Javier and Isabelle will produce a son, Rodrigo, who will be played by Alex Monner as a young child when the family takes a momentous vacation to New York.
Why such generosity by Saccione, particularly since Javier isn’t all that grateful to his boss? Maybe it’s because Saccione is lonely and somehow can’t get a woman to love him — even though he’s Antonio freakin’ Banderas, who will smoulder unto the grave. He’s happy just to observe a happy family, even if that leads to jealousy on Javier’s part.
Or maybe it’s because Fogelman needs to find a way to connect the dots between New York and Spain, as the film becomes increasingly more hokey and those Dylan tunes really start to grate. This is a U.S.-Spain co-production, after all.
But what do I know? I could be another of those unreliable narrators Abby is talking about.
Peter Howell is the Star's movie critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @peterhowellfilm