Olivia Wilde and Oscar Isaac talk babies and Bob Dylan in “Life Itself.”
Photo: Amazon Studios
Spoilers below for Life Itself.
At the outset, Life Itself seems like it will be a passable melodrama, a perfect late-night salve for insomniacs to peacefully drift into a sweaty nightmare, or a movie meant to be background noise for household chores. It’s a “multigenerational love story,” about a lot things, including but not limited to: love, death, womens’ deaths specifically, heartbreak, therapy, Annette Bening’s chunky sweaters, olive oil, absentee fathers, beards, linen, letter-writing, a college thesis that barely earned a passing grade, and questionable analysis of Bob Dylan’s career. Two couples at opposite ends of the world get married and have kids, and those kids — despite their mothers’ grisly deaths — grow up to get married. And then their daughter grows up to write a book about it all and reads it aloud at the Strand. This is a Dan Fogelman production.
Life Itself opened Friday to mostly poor reviews: It’s “inadvertently hilarious,” says the New York Times. “Amend the title to ‘Hate, actually,’” says the Chicago Tribune. The movie “spans continents, generations, and all boundaries of good taste,” suggests Slate. Fine, sure, go off — we have gathered here today to adjudicate something much more pressing: Life Itself is bad, but who gets the best deal? Who makes it out … alive? Which actor, in this tragicomedy coterie makes it out with their paycheck and their dignity, and maybe even with a little more clout or name recognition than they had before? Vulture has examined the evidence (every woman gets the worst deal here), and judged accordingly.
Life Itself does not do Oscar Isaac any favors (more on that later) but at least he gets to play a role. Olivia Wilde exists in the Fogel-verse to lecture: first something weird and incomprehensible about Bob Dylan, and then something weird and incomprehensible about life being “the ultimate unreliable narrator.” I promise you Saoirse Ronan’s pink cast in Lady Bird had more characterization (“Fuck you Mom!” is a least a motivation!).
I wish I could do that unreliable narrator monologue justice. College-aged Olivia Wilde is explaining her college thesis to her college boyfriend, Young Oscar Isaac. Unreliable narrators gone unexamined in literary history, she says, because they’re a seen as a cheap ploy. But actually, life itself is the unreliable narrator, she claims, and we are all living in it! I’m not usually one of those people who gets super haughty about being smarter than the characters I’m watching — except for Molly on Insecure because, girl, how could sleeping with a married man in an open relationship ever seem like a good idea? You know who he goes home to after y’all hook up? His wife! — but damn! This is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. Dumber than that time a kid in my film class said his favorite director is Michael Bay. The worst part is that Olivia Wilde delivers this idea so fully, so earnestly, that made me a little sad.
Oscar Isaac, sweetie, I’m so sorry! On paper, Will looks like classic Golden Globe (or at least SAG) bait: A grieving husband reexamines his life with his beloved wife (Olivia Wilde), and starts to realize that maybe this woman he loves is a fully formed, fully realized human being, with thoughts and feelings he might not understand or even think about. (A wife — is a woman!)
But in Life Itself, this already-specious arc is blotted out into more emotionally manipulative melodrama. Will is rendered as a color-by-numbers alcoholic asshole who lashes out with pointed insults directed at his therapist, Dr. Morris (Annette Bening). And then, a stunning, hilarious reveal: Fogelman sets us up to think that Will’s wife survived a bus wreck, and that she recovered and left him. But really, according to Dr. Morris, that breakup scene was a fabrication because Will couldn’t deal with the fact that his wife died, and that he watched her die, but that the daughter she was pregnant with survived, and actually she lives, like, just a couple blocks away, at his parents’ house. This all happens in about 30 minutes, and then Oscar Isaac shoots himself in the head right in front of Annette Bening and if that doesn’t make you want to embody an Aretha Franklin GIF, I don’t know what to tell you. Life Itself gives Oscar Isaac lots of opportunities to emote and cry, yes, but to what end?
Jean Smart has two Life Itself scenes: the one where she makes an incredibly rude joke about the parents of Olivia Wilde’s character being dead, and the scene where Mandy Patinkin and their young granddaughter get teary-eyed at her grave. And that’s that on that.
Olivia Cooke is too talented to play the morose, falsely punk daughter of two dead movie stars. I’ll even go further: She should be a Star Wars British brunette by now, and it is unfortunate that she is another woman wasted by this movie, where women only cry and react or cry as a reaction!
Only slightly edging her out is Mandy Patinkin, who gets to grumble and fuss just as lovably as he always does. First he’s the dad fawning over his son and daughter-in-law, and then he’s the aging grandfather raising the kid once both parents are dead. (It is a prerequisite for this movie that every role is somehow thankless.) Unlike everyone else, however, Patinkin gets to have a bourbon while he’s doing it, which counts for something.
If you have read anything I’ve ever written, I didn’t come come here to make friends — I came here to love Annette Bening unconditionally! Life Itself really puts her through the ringer: As Oscar Isaac’s therapist Dr. Morris, she (1) is hit by a bus in his screenplay, only to (2) later watch him commit suicide in her office. Fortunately, she does get quite a few reaction shots where she looks generally unamused by his whole grieving thing. (These scenes are filmed with an ugly backlight for no discernable reason.)
I would love to say that Annette Bening gets the sweetest deal out of Life Itself, but really she just gets to wear chunky knits and look impenetrable and be there to react to Oscar Isaac’s mania. There is, however, a completely hilarious scene where Oscar Isaac references Natalie Portman’s career as a child actress, and Annette Bening gets to say “Who?” as if Natalie didn’t walk home with Annette’s Kids Are All Right Oscar! (Natalie, as we know, ought to have won for her work in Jackie.)
Laia Costa and Sergio Peris-Mencheta
I’m a little torn over who has it better in clearly the movie’s most affecting arc: After Javier is promoted to be foreman of Mr. Saccione’s (Antonio Banderas) olive oil farm, he immediately runs across town to propose to his love, Isabel. They are cute and in love and have a son and it’s all very nice, despite the fact that Peris-Mencheta looks like a handsome 40-year-old (he is) and Costa looks like a spry 20-year-old. (I know it’s like unheard of to date someone not half your age in Hollywood but come on!) So yes, outside of that: This is the movie’s good, most genuinely emotional chapter of the movie! Javier suspects Mr. Saccione is trying to weasel his way into his family (bet), so he plans a family trip to New York City where the family rides the bus and his son watches a woman get hit by said bus.
After that, they both get their big emotional scenes: Javier, when he leaves his family because he knows they’d be better off with Mr. Saccione. (Wouldn’t every family be better with Antonio Banderas?) Isabel fights with him and then gets sick with cancer and gives a long, long teary speech to her son about living his best life and then dies. Costa and Peris-Mencheta might just come out of this even: Yes, they have to lean into Fogelman’s contrived melodrama, and yes it looks like there’s an uncomfortable age gap between them, but they — together and individually — crackle with such energy it’s hard to look away, but it’s easy to want better for them.
The adult version of Javier and Isabel’s son is a lot less complicated: Before Life Itself, I hadn’t heard of Àlex Monner. While I am dismayed that he made his debut here, he is very cute and has a nice smile and a good Instagram. His Life Itself chapter is mostly somber: His mom dies and his (annoying) girlfriend plays an April Fool’s prank saying she’s pregnant. He also gets out of this without a long, overshare-y monologue or even making a reaction face to a long overshare-y monologue. Nice!
I am delighted to report that linens have never looked so good or so breezy outside of the Mamma Mia! movies. And Antonio Banderas is wearing these linens: For too long we have forgotten his status as one of world’s Beautiful People, and Life Itself corrects this. Sure, he has to give a few extra-long, extra-sappy monologues, steal someone’s family, and talk at length about olive oil (?!) to do it, but whatever keeps him and the fecund beard onscreen, baby. His role as a wealthy olive czar who falls for his foreman’s wife and child is thankless, but he pulls it off with grace. More movies where Antonio Banderas wears hats and sits around on patios, please!
Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson narrates (and briefly appears in) one sole scene in Life Itself. For most of the scene, he compliments Annette Bening. By the time her character meets her untimely demise, Jackson pops up in an (Adidas?) tracksuit. Samuel L. Jackson collected a check for talking and wearing a tracksuit — well hello! Let’s celebrate a wholesome scam.