Movie review: Movie Minute Life Itself

Movie review: Movie Minute Life Itself
Dan Fogelman Reacts to Bad Life Itself Reviews by Calling Out White Male Critics Who Dont Like Anything That Has Emotion
Starring Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Alex Monner, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart. Written and directed by Dan Fogelman. Opens Friday at GTA theatres. 117 minutes. 14A

Life Itself frequently references Bob Dylan’s 1997 “comeback” album Time Out of Mind, suggesting the film’s writer/director Dan Fogelman was spinning it non-stop as he concocted this shaggy-dog narrative of random connections and tragic occurrences.

A better aural fixation might have been Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping,” also from ’97. It’s the song with the lyric hook, “I get knocked down, but I get up again.”

Which is kind of like the hapless Wile E. Coyote being constantly flattened by his own Acme anvil, but sproinging back for more punishment regardless. Keep that image in mind as Fogelman drags his anvil-bashed cast across decades and from New York City to rural Spain and back again. All in pursuit of a theme tediously expressed by central figure Abby (Olivia Wilde): “Life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator.” Uh-huh.

Abby, a graduate student, makes this banal observation her college thesis while she’s being romantically pursued by Will (Oscar Isaac), an erstwhile screenwriter whose Pulp Fiction-ish scribbles make for a confusingly self-referential and violent start to the film. (It’s initially narrated by a Very Famous Actor whom I won’t name here, but who says “motherf–ker” a lot. He really has nothing at all to do with the story.)

In fact, the whole film is rather consumed with itself, which is what you’d expect from Fogelman. He’s best known for This Is Us, a TV series about smart and cynical people saying sappy things about life, with only gimmicky links between their smart/dumb utterances.

So it is with Life Itself, in which the high-strung Will explains the tragic comedy of his existence to a very serious psychotherapist (Annette Bening), who insists she wants to know all about Abby, their yippy dog named F–kface and that funny-not-hah-hah meal the young couple had with Will’s parents, played by Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart. This is before Will’s version of the story is elbowed aside by plot considerations and by a female narrator whose identity makes for an eye-rolling reveal.

In between, there’s the much more satisfying sojourn to Spain, where we find the ever-suave Antonio Banderas as a wealthy olive plantation owner named Senor Saccione. As the grateful survivor of a sad family situation, he wants to do right by sharing part of his inherited wealth with his most loyal employee, a big sad-eyed man named Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta).

Saccione gives Javier free use of his mansion, providing the wherewithal for Javier to marry his girlfriend Isabelle (Laia Costa), who is described for no particular reason as “the fourth-prettiest of six sisters.” In due course, Javier and Isabelle will produce a son, Rodrigo, who will be played by Alex Monner as a young child when the family takes a momentous vacation to New York.

Why such generosity by Saccione, particularly since Javier isn’t all that grateful to his boss? Maybe it’s because Saccione is lonely and somehow can’t get a woman to love him — even though he’s Antonio freakin’ Banderas, who will smoulder unto the grave. He’s happy just to observe a happy family, even if that leads to jealousy on Javier’s part.

Or maybe it’s because Fogelman needs to find a way to connect the dots between New York and Spain, as the film becomes increasingly more hokey and those Dylan tunes really start to grate. This is a U.S.-Spain co-production, after all.

Starring Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Alex Monner, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart. Written and directed by Dan Fogelman. Opens Friday at GTA theatres. 117 minutes. 14A

Life Itself frequently references Bob Dylan’s 1997 “comeback” album Time Out of Mind, suggesting the film’s writer/director Dan Fogelman was spinning it non-stop as he concocted this shaggy-dog narrative of random connections and tragic occurrences.

A better aural fixation might have been Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping,” also from ’97. It’s the song with the lyric hook, “I get knocked down, but I get up again.”

Which is kind of like the hapless Wile E. Coyote being constantly flattened by his own Acme anvil, but sproinging back for more punishment regardless. Keep that image in mind as Fogelman drags his anvil-bashed cast across decades and from New York City to rural Spain and back again. All in pursuit of a theme tediously expressed by central figure Abby (Olivia Wilde): “Life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator.” Uh-huh.

Abby, a graduate student, makes this banal observation her college thesis while she’s being romantically pursued by Will (Oscar Isaac), an erstwhile screenwriter whose Pulp Fiction-ish scribbles make for a confusingly self-referential and violent start to the film. (It’s initially narrated by a Very Famous Actor whom I won’t name here, but who says “motherf–ker” a lot. He really has nothing at all to do with the story.)

In fact, the whole film is rather consumed with itself, which is what you’d expect from Fogelman. He’s best known for This Is Us, a TV series about smart and cynical people saying sappy things about life, with only gimmicky links between their smart/dumb utterances.

So it is with Life Itself, in which the high-strung Will explains the tragic comedy of his existence to a very serious psychotherapist (Annette Bening), who insists she wants to know all about Abby, their yippy dog named F–kface and that funny-not-hah-hah meal the young couple had with Will’s parents, played by Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart. This is before Will’s version of the story is elbowed aside by plot considerations and by a female narrator whose identity makes for an eye-rolling reveal.

In between, there’s the much more satisfying sojourn to Spain, where we find the ever-suave Antonio Banderas as a wealthy olive plantation owner named Senor Saccione. As the grateful survivor of a sad family situation, he wants to do right by sharing part of his inherited wealth with his most loyal employee, a big sad-eyed man named Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta).

Saccione gives Javier free use of his mansion, providing the wherewithal for Javier to marry his girlfriend Isabelle (Laia Costa), who is described for no particular reason as “the fourth-prettiest of six sisters.” In due course, Javier and Isabelle will produce a son, Rodrigo, who will be played by Alex Monner as a young child when the family takes a momentous vacation to New York.

Why such generosity by Saccione, particularly since Javier isn’t all that grateful to his boss? Maybe it’s because Saccione is lonely and somehow can’t get a woman to love him — even though he’s Antonio freakin’ Banderas, who will smoulder unto the grave. He’s happy just to observe a happy family, even if that leads to jealousy on Javier’s part.

Or maybe it’s because Fogelman needs to find a way to connect the dots between New York and Spain, as the film becomes increasingly more hokey and those Dylan tunes really start to grate. This is a U.S.-Spain co-production, after all.

“This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman premiered his latest movie “Life Itself” at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it got panned by film critics and received some of the worst reviews of the year (the movie holds a 14% on Rotten Tomatoes from 42 reviews). The director was asked by TooFab about the reviews, to which he responded by sharing his belief that “something is inherently a little bit broken in our film criticism right now.”

“I think that the people with the widest reach are getting increasingly cynical and vitriolic and I think there are a couple of genres and a couple of ideas that they [attack, which] doesn’t speak to not just a mainstream audience, but also a sophisticated audience,” Fogelman said, while also noting a similar thing is happening in television criticism.

Fogleman continued, “A couple of the early reviews that have come out about this movie feel so out of left field to everybody who’s a part of this movie and to people who have been screening this film for the better part of a year now to both fancy filmmakers, critics, and audiences. There’s a disconnect between something that is happening between our primarily white male critics who don’t like anything that has any emotion.”

Referring to the “white male critics who don’t like anything that has any emotion,” Fogelman criticized them for saying his work is “emotionally manipulative” every time they see storylines where his characters “go through anything.”

“It’s concerning because it is important, it tells people what to go see,” Fogelman said of critics. “I don’t feel that often now our pop and film critics are speaking for a sophisticated audience anymore.”

Unfortunately for Fogelman, white male critics like Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune (one star our of four), A.O. Scott of The New York Times (he calls the movie “utter balderdash”), and Brian Truitt of USA Today (one-and-a-half stars out of four) are hardly the only ones to pan “Life Itself.” IndieWire’s Kate Erbland gave the movie a “D” grade, calling it a “demented, morbid epic built on bad storytelling.” Hunter Harris of Vulture refers to “Life Itself” as “rubble,” while Mara Reinstein of US Weekly says it’s “overwrought” and Kristen Page-Kirby of The Washington Post calls it a “giant letdown” in her two-star review.

“Life Itself” stars Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde in the story of a couple whose relationship connects with others across the globe and across generations. Ironically, white male critic Pete Hammond Amazon Studios releases the drama in theaters September 21.