Dan Fogelman makes two mistakes as he wrote and directed Life Itself. The first is that he threw every tragedy on his characters and hoping that all of them stuck. The second, in connection to the first, is that he doesn’t connect the dots between those tragedies. Let’s look at one character – Abby (Olivia Wilde). Her parents die which means that the courts gave her to her molester uncle. She eventually shoots him in the knee and goes to university. There, she ‘thrives’ but experiences the worst tragedy any young woman could face. She becomes the girlfriend of Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac), someone who references Tarantino in his five-page screenplays.
Ok, so there could be easy explanations as to why Abby didn’t end up in juvie. Or what scholarship she got so she could end up in university. Fogelman already went as far to give his audience a quick blow by blow of her life. Why give up two steps from the finish line? He as a terrible excuse for doing so – because he’s an unreliable narrator. This by the way, is the subject of Abby bad thesis statement. I will neither be the first or the last person to make fun of said thesis because it’s so bad. She even mention’s the movie’s title to explain it, that life itself is an unreliable narrator. Of course, Will loves her so much he’s unable to tell her how terrible her thesis is.
Anyway the film hints at the two uses of the unreliable narrator, which actually surprised me. One, is that the narrator chooses their heroes and villains regardless of the validity of such designations. This is the more popular version of such a narrator. Which sure, but despite tragedies these characters face, the film doesn’t warrant that tension. Two, is that narrators will omit and add things because they’re all liars. But in the narrator’s defense, storytelling presents arbitrary limits to itself. This forces the narrator to omit things because we all must go home eventually. And I never felt that emotion so strongly until now. Or for me to have the same fate that befalls Will’s therapist Dr. Kate Morris (Annette Bening).
There are traces of ambition here because this is Dan Fogelman after all. He wrote the problematic but enjoyable Crazy Stupid Love, a cinematic throwback to Restoration theater. He also wrote Guilt Trip which is worse than this film. But at least it gives Barbra Streisand the gravitas that the latter deserves. There are more through lines between this and Crazy though with its emphasis on coincidences. There’s also an emphasis on fate and connectivity in a world where social media somehow don’t exist. This time around the connections are arbitrary. And had these characters known how connected they really are they would probably stop speaking to each other. But they have to keep those haphazard connections because it believes in fate, a worldview that’s worthy of a groan.
It shows how characters like Abby and Will’s don’t just affect each other but others as well. Because they have to infect other people with their insufferable nature. Their spoiler heavy tragedies affect their daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke), who they named after Bob Dylan. What happens to the Dempsey family also affects Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas). Well, it more directly affects Rodrigo Gonzales (Adrian Marrero), the son of his wife Isabel (Laia Costa). But all of this screams Western narcissism of things happening because of some cosmic design. I believe in God, the Father Son and Spirit, but this movie is starting to give me some doubts.
The film’s use of its unreliable narrator and its New York setting also reminds me of something. Of how bad romantic dramas disregard the economic world building which is something that better movies do. Will is, just like all of us, a failed screenwriter and Abby eventually leaves him. Will can afford Dr. Morris instead of a social worker. And of course Abby didn’t need to finish her terrible thesis because romantic interests don’t have jobs. Dylan’s fine with being a punk musician while living with her grandfather Irwin (Mandy Patinkin). I assume he is paying for three generations of slacker idiots, but how does he still do it? Why does he have to keep suffering because of them?
These supporting characters are also a reminder of the rampant verbal abuse taking place in Fogelman’s script. Will is even sexually abusive to Kate. Hollywood now typecasts Annette Bening as a cool mom which has its benefits. But had Will talked to 90’s Bening in the way he does to Kate his life would have been over. The same goes with the one conversation than Dylan and Irwin have, which is tonally inconsistent. It’s an actor’s job to sustain such volatile scenes. To not say anything that would make the other person either call security on them. Or to finally make other person leave their house. But they can only do so much under the whims of their writer.