Not one but two characters in Life Itself get hit by a bus and are killed. Another is decapitated by the steering column during a car accident. One dies from a self-inflicted gunshot. And all of those individuals meet a fate more palatable than you, dear audience, if you choose to watch this movie.
Okay, okay, obviously that’s hyperbolic. Death isn’t quite a more appetizing end than sitting through a disgusting slog of a movie like this one, but it’s hyperbole that gets those clicks, isn’t it? After all, while this might not be the worst movie of the year—and if it were, it might be more interesting than it is—but declaring it a fate worse than death draws eyes. That’s only fair, given that the movie does shocking things for attention almost every time that it feels like it’s beginning to lose its audience under its sheer amount of exposition and nonsense.
The story is divvied up into chapters that focus on a character or a couple of characters and then we move on after they’ve had their say. What determines that? It depends on the story. Most of the events in the movie have already happened. We get narrators constantly explaining to us what has transpired or how a character is feeling (because telling, not showing, is more effective, am I right?), and the whole thing feels like a gigantic exposition dump of family histories that we didn’t need to know.
We are all aware, I hope, of the character that just won’t stop talking. It’s a trope used mostly in comedies where someone over shares and reveals details that are somehow simultaneously both way too personal and also extraordinarily uninteresting. Life Itself is that character. But we’re here for a two-hour ride, and nobody is laughing. Nobody is going to be crying, either, for what it’s worth. There’s nothing sad since almost none of it is happening in real time, none of the characters have enough depth or development to get us to care, and—get this—the entire premise is underscored by having unreliable narrators.
Life Itself is not clever, sad, funny, insightful, or enjoyable in any way.
That’s part of the point of the movie, after all. One of its characters writes a thesis on the narrative technique, and the eventual lesson we’re supposed to take from it is that life is the ultimate unreliable narrator (What? How?). What does that mean for storytelling? Who cares? None of it matters. Nothing you see in this movie is important, it’s possible that none of it happened in the diegesis as we’re shown. The movie does frequently bait-and-switch, showing us scenes as they “should have happened” or cutting away too soon only to later cut back and reveal an “important” detail.
Life Itself comes to us courtesy of Dan Fogelman, whose previous movie, Danny Collins, is quite solid, and I hear his newest TV show, This is Us, is very good. This is a movie that thinks it’s smarter than it is, the kind of movie that revels in its ability to both fool (by being deceptive) and disturb (by having random shock-value scenes) its audience. It’s amazed that (1) people die and that’s sad and (2) people are related to other people.
And once you learn those two things, the film is sadly predictable. Its only potentially interesting element is how all of its stories fit with the other ones, but I’m guessing most audience members are going to piece the relationships together far before the movie wants you to. That, along with a feeling of being self-congratulatory, is a mark of bad screenwriting. And Life Itself was doomed from the script department long before it was made into this hodgepodge of a film.
Life Itself is not clever, sad, funny, insightful, or enjoyable in any way. It’s a movie that consists almost exclusively of exposition and misdirection, the latter of which potentially makes the former pointless and a waste of our time. It revels in tragedy and connections but doesn’t give us even a semblance of a reason to care. It wastes talented actors on nothing roles, is predictable even with all of its attempts to fool its audience, and throws in random shock-value scenes in an attempt to keep us awake. Watching it isn’t a fate worse than death—let’s not be silly, guys—but it’s a huge misfire and will go down as one of the biggest disasters of the year.
Conclusion: Life Itself is a horrible attempt at telling a compelling story.
Recommendation: Steer clear from Life Itself unless you want to feel the life drain from your body.