Spoilers below for Life Itself.
The less said about Life Itself — a truly zany multi-timeline melodrama from the creator of that NBC show that makes everyone cry — the better. A woman is hit by a bus and seems to survive, but then actually dies. A college thesis suggests unreliable narrators have gone “unexamined” in literary history. There’s a Spanish olive oil vineyard, and a lot of talk about dead and missing parents. Antonio Banderas wears linen; a girl dramatically eats a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich without washing her hands first. (I could go on …) And yet: somehow, in this rubble of its bus crashes and love affairs and teary reunions, Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself inspired a photograph that I cannot stop thinking about. It’s the most important photograph I’ve ever seen that did not debut on Beyoncé.com. I’m speaking, of course, about this photo of Annette Bening and Oscar Isaac.
It’s got a simple enough conceit: two movie stars, standing on an anonymous street corner in New York City. It’s winter, or at least fall — they have coats on. Annette Bening, the light of my life, peers ahead, her withering gaze deployed at its full magnitude. It’s an expression that looks a little bit like she believes winter is a curse and a narrative she would very much like to be excluded from, and a little bit like she is watching someone do something loudly and improperly (is this the face that ordered Warren Beatty home after the Oscars?). Where Annette looks inquisitive, Oscar Isaac looks searching, kind of like he hasn’t yet argued with Drake fans on the internet, and still has the ability to see the best in people. They are a match made in cinematic heaven, a partnership that should launch a million franchises. Give us this movie now, you cowards! you (okay, I) thought when I scrolled past the paparazzi shot as the movie filmed last year.
You would be (and I was) devastated to realize that the movie itself utterly wastes the pairing so beautifully suggested by this perfect photo. But at least Dan Fogelman gets to it quickly. Annette Bening is Dr. Morris, a sweet-but-firm therapist sitting through a session with a patient who has chosen to replace his obsessive eating with a fantasy-football obsession. She suggests this, and he gets quietly defensive. For reasons that are unclear, Samuel L. Jackson narrates the scene. “Look at that pretty therapist over there,” he says. “That’s a hero right there: amazing smile, silky smooth hair.” Well hello! Let’s celebrate this, you might agree. Annette Bening is serving us glasses with stylish (Warby Parker?) Lucite frames; she’s giving us chunky knits. Her office is full of weird not-quite–West Elm sculptures, the kind that make you not want to get too comfortable. But the office itself is wood-paneled and backlit in such a way that it looks like a womb (or at least what I imagine a womb to look like, although I haven’t been inside one in 24 years), which I personally appreciated!
But Fogelman has other plans for Dr. Morris: She leaves her office for a brisk walk, where she lights her cigarette. She takes a puff, and then Oscar Isaac steps into the frame. They wordlessly acknowledge one another; she makes eye contact and smiles. She steps into the street, holding the gaze. He smiles back, and — crash!
A bus has just killed Annette Bening. There she is, splayed out on the sidewalk, blood pooling around her head. “I can’t believe Dan Fogelman made me face my only natural fear in this world: Annette Bening’s death!!!!!” I scribble in my notebook. Oscar Isaac looks on in horror. I gasp. A perfect screen pairing, wasted by both Dan Fogelman and the M23 downtown bus!
But the movie has even more horrors in store for us. It cuts to Oscar Isaac sitting with a laptop at a big, glass-walled Starbucks. He’s tip-tapping away on the screenplay for his first feature, in which his therapist is hit by a bus. In other words, Annette is not actually dead. Somehow, this egregious and unnecessary rug-pulling is even worse.
Imagine what, in steadier, not-deranged hands, this photo and this gorgeous twosome could’ve been. Bening and Isaac, together onscreen, is just odd enough to be completely delightful. (I smell four-quadrant appeal!) It’s giving me highbrow, Peak TV, Emmys-bait vibes. Consider the possibilities: a detective series, where Annette Bening plays the crotchety veteran who butts heads with her slick young partner, Oscar Isaac. He fumbles around crime scenes, offering obvious observations (not unlike his Star Wars character). She says things like, “Well you would think that, wouldn’t you?” and mutters, “Fucking rookies!” under her breath, but just loud enough so he can hear her and the camera can catch him feeling insecure.
Consider: a Sunday night network drama about a pair of angels who run around New York City shepherding lost souls to Hillsong, or maybe just to a good, quiet brunch spot. As these angels meddle in the lives of others, they get to watch their family members cope with their loss. This would probably air on ABC.
Consider: a Phantom Thread–style romance, in which Annette Bening is the Reynolds and Oscar Isaac is the Alma, and I am the Cyril. Instead of designing dresses, Bening is an irascible sculptor who gets into a foul mood before a gallery opening, and Oscar Isaac makes her avocado toast in the morning, and she looks at it disapprovingly and goes across the street for bagels. The Last Jedi was a movie about Adam Driver’s torso sheen and Laura Dern talking down to Oscar Isaac — imagine the possibilities here!
Consider: Annette Bening as a complicated novelist who minds her own business being artistic and emotionally unavailable until she has to tussle with her daughter’s AP English Literature teacher (Oscar Isaac) over a grade. The teacher starts to hit on her, starting a toxic, whirlwind romance that will almost certainly end in my personal death. Maybe it’s better Fogelman didn’t go with this one, after all.