Freitag, 18. Januar 2019

Life Itself

Life Itself, the sophomore directing effort of TV and screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Tangled, Crazy, Stupid, Love, This Is Us), opens with veteran actor Samuel L. Jackson delivering some five minutes of self-aware, emphatically tongue-in-cheek narration. After a series of cloying jokes and smug acts of misdirection, we are introduced to "our hero," a therapist played by Annette Bening – who is then promptly run over by a bus. At seeing the bloody aftermath of the accident, Jackson mutters, "Fuck it, I'm out," never to return. We, the audience, should be so lucky.

As it turns out, this aggressively atrocious introductory sequence is the brainchild of our actual protagonist, severely depressed Jackson fan Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac), who, following the departure of his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde), is in treatment with Bening's therapist and, given the task of writing about his feelings, starts, and quickly abandons, a movie script with Jackson playing the narrator.

From there, Life Itself spins completely out of control, resulting in a two-hour trainwreck that is both fascinating and infuriating to behold. Told in five chapters of varying length, each with its own protagonist, the film is ostensibly another entry into that subgenre of kitsch that attempts to milk overwrought fictional tragedies for saccharinely life-affirming greeting card messages – with Akiva Goldsman's Winter's Tale (2014) and David Frankel's Collateral Beauty (2016) its nearest analogues. Yet somehow, this film manages to outdo even those unsalvageable cinematic disasters in terms of sheer awfulness.

Working from what might be one of the worst scripts in Hollywood history, Life Itself, in the vein of Fogelman's critically acclaimed hit TV series This Is Us, charts how the lives, loves, and deaths of a group of people intersect across oceans and generations, with Will and Abby Dempsey forming the dramatic epicentre of it all.

Will (Oscar Isaac) is replaying scenes from his relationship with Abby (Olivia Wilde) in his head.
© Ascot Elite
Such an inherently corny premise might just work if it is delivered through a collection of arresting characters. It's unfortunate, then, that the film's first and longest chapter, which is dedicated to Will and Abby, is anything but – replete with mind-numbingly inane banter, nauseatingly trite proclamations of love, and hilariously excessive tear-jerking, featuring, among other things, a preposterously misjudged beheading.

And this is not even mentioning the film's excruciating habit of making the same point several times to drive it home, its downright embarrassing insistence on invoking the Bob Dylan masterpiece Time Out of Mind, Will's troubling tendency towards emotional manipulation ("I'll kill myself if you don't say yes!"), or the lines of dialogue that call to mind the diatribes of a romantically frustrated teenager ("You scare me with how much you feel").

Elsewhere, Isabel (Laia Costa) and Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) fall in love.
© Ascot Elite
All of this is presented without a shred of irony, even though the film is enamoured with the idea of the unreliable narrator – from Samuel L. Jackson's appearance to the frequent use of either painfully obvious or bewilderingly far-fetched voice-overs to Abby's altogether laughable English Literature thesis on how "life itself is an unreliable narrator." On the rare occasions where it does seem to problematise its own narrative – such as when Will considers the possibility that his memories of a happy relationship with Abby might just be subjective projection – it unfailingly evades the consequences and retreats back into its fortress of tireless would-be witticisms and grand romantic and/or pseudo-philosophical pronouncements.

By the time Will and Abby have vacated the spotlight – somewhere around the hour mark – the damage is done. The boredom caused by the protracted middle section, which itself introduces and quickly discards a whole new range of ludicrous tragedies and pointless narrative gimmicks, may offer something like respite in comparison, but the final ten minutes – a seemingly never-ending pile-on of gooily inspirational, utterly meaningless platitudes even Nicholas Sparks would be ashamed of – yank Life Itself right back to the bottom of the metaphorical barrel. This film is not just bad – it ranks among the worst I have ever seen.

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