Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature
This movie is an awful mess.
And yet I'm not actively disgusted by it, as usually am by movies this bad. The reason is that writer/director Dan Fogelman swung for the fences on this one. He was trying to do something big, bold, emotional, and profound. I admire that level of ambition in a movie. But while his heart may have been in the right place, this movie is a gigantic swing and a miss.
It is difficult to explain why this film is so bad without getting into all of its twists and turns. So be warned MAJOR SPOILERS THROUGHOUT THIS REVIEW. To see what a tangled catastrophe this is, I have to lay out the entire story.
The movie begins with Samuel L. Jackson narrating as Will (Oscar Isaac) is on a streetcorner with Dr. Morris (Annette Benning). Dr. Morris gets hit by a bus and Sam Jackson goes nuts. We then realize that all of this is a sequence in a screenplay that Will is writing in a coffee house. Here we are introduced to one of the movie's major themes: life is an unreliable narrator. The idea is that as we live life, we think we know what kind of story we are in and how it is going to shake out. Instead, we find out that life itself is unreliable.
Will, we find out, has just gotten out of a mental institution because his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) left him. Will is ordered by the court to meet with Dr. Morris as a condition of his release. Will is wildly depressed and is abusing pills and alcohol. In the course of their session, Will relives his romance with Abby. The two of them became friends in college and then fell in love. As the story unfolds, we become more and more invested in the intensity of their relationship. It is not at all volatile, but you can see how Will has invested everything that he is into his romance with Abby. As the session continues Morris pushes Will to confront a truth he has been denying: Abby didn't leave him. Late into her pregnancy, she was hit by a bus and died. Morris reminds Will that his baby daughter is still alive and if he gets better he can see her. When faced with this awful reality, Will simply says, "I don't want to be here anymore." He then pulls out a pistol and shoots himself in the head.
The story then shifts to Will and Abby's daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke). She is raised by her grandfather Irwin (Mandy Patinkin). But she becomes a sad and angry young woman who is lost in the world. After a bad concert with her band, she ends up at the same corner where her mother was killed. Then a little boy asks if she is okay.
And then that story ends and we shift to Javiar (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). He is a simple, hard-working working on an olive farm in Spain. His boss Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas) promotes him so Javiar then marries his love Laia. However, Saccione visits more and more and becomes connected to Laia and her son Rodrigo (Adrian Marrero). Saccione delights Rodrigo with tales of New York City. Jealous, Javier self-finances a trip for his wife and sun to New York. While on the bus, Rodrigo distracts the bus driver and the bus hits Abby and kills her. Rodrigo begins to have horrible trauma. Laia gets Javier to as Saccione for financial help for doctors, but Saccione desires to be more involved in their lives. Years go by and Javier finally confronts Saccione about his feelings for Laia. Saccione admits he is in love with her, but says he will cut off contact and still fund Rodrigo's therapy. Instead, Javier leaves his wife and son so they can have a better life with Saccione. Saccione and Laia marry. Rodrigo grows up (now played by Alex Monner). Laia gets sick with cancer just as Rodrigo gets into a New York college. In Spain, Javier returns to be with Laia on her deathbed. When Rodrigo hears of his mother's death, he goes for a saddness run. He ends up on the same corner as Dylan and he asks if she is alright. We then discover that this whole story is being narrated by Dylan and Rodrigo's daughter (Hannah Wood) who has just written a novel about how her parents met.
Okay, I can see how someone who came up with this plot could see in it something profound, maybe even Dickensian in how all of our human lives are intertwined. But the execution of this narrative fails miserable and the reason is in the structure of the story.
Throughout the movie there are constant visual references to Pulp Fiction. This is not an accident. Like Pulp Fiction, Life Itself plays around with the timeline and shockingly kills off its main actor part way through the film. I can see how Fogelman was trying to capture that sheer audacity. But these movies are wildly different. The most important is that Pulp Fiction is not trying to pull at your heart strings. The emotional investment that is being asked of the audience in Life Itself is a much different thing. Watching Will commit suicide isn't just shocking, it is horrific. It makes you feel as thought the entire movie up until this time has been a waste.
The movie almost redeems itself with the Dylan storyline. If the rest of the movie was about the fallout in her life, I could understand how it was necessary to have that vicarious trauma in order to really connect to the mostly unlikeable Dylan. But we barely get to spend any time with her. In total, I think she only has about 10 minutes of screen time. When the story shifts again to Javier, my ability to emotionally attach to any of the new characters, because I was expecting them to get snatched away. And I was also really upset, because the Dylan storyline could have been so incredibly interesting, but Fogelman won't let us explore her rich emotional life.
Besides the structure, the dialogue needed a severe revision. Early in the Javier storyline, he and Saccione sit down and Saccione tells him the story of his life. This is a loooongg story that only serves to bore the audience. The movie keeps putting profound statements and monologues into its characters mouths, but they never quite ring true. They feel like mouthpieces for a philosophy major who is taking a crack and screenwriting.
And while the idea of an order behind the chaos of life is a very Catholic idea, there is so much here that is repugnant. Abby is a completely self-centered person and never overcomes this. Will's suicide is an act of ultimate selfishness in abandoning his daughter. Rodrigo, who raised by the clearly Catholic Laia, beings a sexual affair with an American girl in college. Javier abandons the wife and Saccione essentially breaks up a marriage. And while I know that things like this are typical Hollywood fare, it seems rather base for a movie that is trying to aim so high.
The only things that keeps this film from total disaster are the cinematography and the acting. Fogelman uses the camera effectively. One of the strongest things he does is he leaves the camera to linger on Morris' empty office after Will shoots himself. This uncomfortable silence lets the reality of the suicide sink in. Isaac is as incredible as ever and the rest of the cast also do solid turns. But these things are not enough to pull the movie out of its nose dive.
Life Itself is, without question, a bad movie. But what it was trying to achieve was noble.
|image by Yasir72.multan|