“Life Itself” thinks you’re stupid. Or, if not stupid, unable to understand how a movie should work. It’s a movie made for people who can’t be trusted to understand any storytelling unless it’s not just spoon-fed but ladled on, piled high, and explained via montage and voiceover. It’s the kind of movie that includes commercials for itself by using its own title within the dialogue multiple times. Ostensibly, it’s about unreliable narration; if you don’t know what that is, “Life Itself” will explain it via monologue 10 minutes after delivering a ham-fisted demo of it in action. However, the movie uses unreliable narration as a way to pass off poor storytelling as a feature, not a bug.
But mostly, “Life Itself” is about death, with Fogelman co-opting the formula that made his television series “This Is Us” such a four-quadrant hit: twisty, twisted stories that rest on (1) Who is going to die next; and (2) how much are you going to cry over it? Death, or even the threat of death (in Fogelman’s world, perhaps better to refer to it as the promise of death) is his big trick, and it’s the only way “Life Itself” is propelled forward.
An unholy combination of “Rashomon” and “Babel,” it strings together seemingly disparate plotlines into one massive, messy tableau of (sorry, has to be done) life itself, a life that zings toward the warm embrace of death. Told in five chapters of mystifyingly uneven length, “Life Itself” opens with Will (Oscar Isaac), a man who feels too much and loves too hard and is presented in multiple timelines, from sprightly college student to expectant father to ruined, Bob Dylan lyric-spouting drunkard. Present-day Will has lost something dear to him, and as the story unfolds, with Fogelman treating choppy timelines as narrative creativity, it becomes clear that he has suffered greatly. He’ll suffer more soon. Will has lost his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde), and subsequent chapters will explore how that happened and what it’s done to scores of other people beyond him. (Spoiler: There are no risks of spoilers in a plot this convoluted.)
Short shrift is given to Will and Abby’s tragic spawn, Dylan (Olivia Cooke), in a truncated chapter that is meant to continue the heartbreak on a massive scale, but mostly stands out for featuring a scene in which Dylan punches a girl in the face and then shoves a PB&J down her throat. The film’s third and fourth chapters introduce a loving Spanish family and their broken-hearted employer (Antonio Banderas). All of this leads to heartbreak, betrayal, and an entire sequence designed to make fun of a minor character who didn’t look both ways before crossing the street, and it’s all interconnected to everything that came before.
Twists can be seen a mile away, but there’s narration to guide everything and handy flashbacks that make the whole endeavor feel like its own “previously seen on” network-drama catch-up. It all builds to a final chapter that’s nothing more than an epilogue expected to make the grueling two hours that came before it somehow seem worth it, but this optimistic 15-second coda doesn’t have a chance. While it’s designed to reward us after destruction, pain, at least two horrifically bloody bus accidents, and one oddly tossed-off subplot about about sexual abuse, this is a film so obsessed with death that it hasn’t bothered to give us any reason to care for the living.
“Life Itself” had its world premiere at TIFF. Amazon Studios will release it in theaters September 21.