How do you rate a cinematic black hole that doesn’t deserve a single star? Do you simply give it five eyerolls? Better question: How does a movie, with all the talent in the world going for it, become a such a blithering botch job? That’s Life Itself, which counts Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas and Mandy Patinkin in its starry cast. The writer-director is Dan Fogelman riding a wave of TV success with This Is Us (his debut feature Danny Collins, starring Al Pacino, also hit its fair share of sweet spots). And yet, the melodrama goes thunderously wrong from the very first scene, steadily getting worse before going up in a hellish blaze of gross incompetence, crass tear-jerking, unrelenting tragedy porn, unearned self-congratulation and leaden dialogue that hits you like a blunt force trauma.
For starters, the film instructs us about the literary device known as “the unreliable narrator.” That’s right, with Samuel L. Jackson supplying the voiceover, we watch Will (a slumming Isaac) visit a shrink (a wasted Bening) who must listen to him to weep about the wife (Wilde) who left him. Then the shrink goes splat after a bus slams into her. These are not spoilers. As the unreliable Jackson tells us, none of this ever happened. At least not this way.
The prologue allows Fogelman — getting all lit-prof pompous — to set up his movie in five chapters. (Trust me, you’ll be groaning way before you get to the last page.) In the first chapter, Will and Abby fall in love. They go to a party where he dresses alike John Travolta in Pulp Fiction; she’s dona up as Uma Thurman. Hint to screenwriters: Never set up comparisons to movies you’ll never live up to. In a bigger blunder, Abby confesses her fandom for Bob Dylan, especially Time Out of Mind. The pregnant Abby wants to name their unborn child Dylan. Then tragedy strikes, as it does in every chapter, but all we could think of was: Why, exactly did the real Bob allow his music to infuse this insufferable bilge?
In Chapter Two, Dylan is now grown and being raised by her grandfather (Patinkin). Do you have to ask what happened? Tragedy. As played by Olivia Cooke, the young woman is a defiant punk rocker who thrashes around on stage reinventing the master’s “Make You Feel My Love.” We learn that critics shat all over the song when it was first released as a cut on the aforementioned 1997 album — too sentimental and out of place on a work of such intellectual rigor, they said. This is when Fogelman contrives to tell us that the most sentimental song is the one we often remember the most. Is he really comparing his movie to a Dylan song?! Can’t you guess by now?
If you don’t understandably bolt for the exit by Chapter Three, you’ll find yourself in Spain, where Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), works an olive plantation for boss-man Saccione (Banderas). The worker finds himself promoted to foreman. This means he can marry Isabelle (Laia Costa), who is labeled in voiceover as “the fourth-prettiest of six sisters.” Naturally the cheif falls hard for her as well, as presumably the three prettier sisters weren’t unavailable. Does proud Javier step aside so the boss can give Isabelle and their son a better life? Does cancer attack one of these characters? Have you ever seen a soap opera?
By Chapter Four, Javier and Isabelle’s son Rodrigo (Alex Monner), is attending college in New York where he meets and falls in love with a character from Chapter Two, in a way so obvious and time-out-of-mindless that you may shout, “Make it stop!” Chapter Five ties together the loose ends, cruelly flashing back to characters you hoped you’d never see again as Fogelman splashes around aimlessly in his own self-importance. In a risible line that Life Itself‘s creator takes with the utmost seriousness, a character informs us that the real unreliable narrator is “life itself.” Bad things happen to nearly everyone in this movie. But the real tragedy strikes when you buy a ticket.