Life Itself is not a real movie. It is a movie made in the universe of 30 Rock, where it acts as a hysterically funny spoof, endlessly on the money as it eviscerates the worst kind of calculatedly saccharine TV movies. If, by some freak multiversal accident, we have travelled to a world where Life Itself is, in fact, a real movie, then it is by some margin the worst of the year, in fact the worst wide-release film of the last three or four years. It is heart-hardeningly cynical and shockingly lazy, devoid of character or merit with a bizarrely impressive cast-list that cannot be explained.
Following four stories of trauma over three generations and two continents, Life Itself begins with a baffling Samuel L Jackson-narrated prologue that means nothing and matters not at all. We then proceed to the star-crossed story of Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde). As far as character traits go, Abby is cringingly described as ‘the perfect woman; nurturing and beautiful’ and Will is in love with her. They have a small dog named Fuckface which of course makes them quirky and hilarious and not at all insufferable ciphers upon whom sadistic writer-director Dan Fogelman can visit all manner of pain.
Turns out Abby’s parents died in a car crash when she was seven. Not content with this slice of tragedy, Fogelman makes sure we know that she was left in the car with their corpses for an hour, and that her dad was decapitated. ‘Decapitated’ is delivered as a thunderbolt, but is an inadvertent punchline, the exact amount of overkill required to turn this backstory hilarious. Next up, she’s molested by her uncle, who she then shoots, before, finally, SPOILERS she’s hit by a bus while 9 months pregnant.
Will recounts this story to his therapist (Annette Bening), which should give Isaac a chance to at least show off some of his anguish chops. Yet, instead of giving one of those great Oscar Isaac performances he’s so famous for, he opts to oscillate between a bad Bobby Cannavale impression and a bad Jake Johnson impression, absolutely drowning in the shoddy material. Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart, as Will’s parents, get out of the segment with some dignity intact, but the drab intentional comedy they bring cannot possibly stand up to the uncomfortable laughs garnered by the wildly misjudged drama going on around them.
Things get slightly less appalling as the stories progress, but never threaten to ever approach ‘good’. The segment involving Will and Abby’s now-adult daughter (yes, the unborn child survived the bus crash despite Abby being hit belly-first) is young rebellion by numbers, Olivia Cooke saddled in the role with a poor attempt at edginess. Later, the action moves from America to Spain, where wealthy landowner Saccione (Antonio Banderas) falls in love with his best worker’s wife Isabel (Laia Costa) before we barrel towards another time-jump that delivers the most contrived and predictable ending imaginable.
Banderas is decent in his role, even if his central monologue is delivered in a context in which no real human would think of delivering a monologue, but most of the cast are pretty terrible. Wilde and Bening have absolutely nothing to work with and meet the painful script at its level, while Costa manages to make it even worse, somehow fluffing a line in her climactic speech about love and life (Isabel is, because this is Life Itself, dying of cancer at the time). There’s an astonishing lack of effort put into every aspect of this production – at least 40 years pass over the course of the four stories and a boring epilogue, but every year is visually identical.
On top of its frankly stress-inducing lack of quality, Life Itself also has dismal politics. The women in it fit only three archetypes – angelic mother figure, ditzy bitch, punk girl who just needs the right man to settle her down – and the one gay figure in all the romance is disposed of in the first three minutes after told both that he should have a proud bumhole and that he could never be a hero. In a way, it’s thrilling to witness a film this catastrophic. Cinematically, at least, your year can only improve from here. In another, more serious, way; fuck this movie. Life Itself is the career nadir of all involved.