Walking out after my first viewing of Magnolia back in 1999, I asked a friend what he thought of the movie. His response was, “I wish it was just three hours of that first 15 minutes. That would’ve been a movie!” So, he didn’t like Magnolia but clicked into the groove of the three short stories that served as its prologue/mission statement, a quick primer on coincidence and chance and storytelling and, finally, the interconnectedness of all things. Well, old friend, here’s your movie. It’s called Life Itself. I hope you’re finally happy.
Life Itself hops from story to story, complete with cutesy metachapter headings, spanning continents, decades and points of view to no real end. As a person who always found the fractured, multilayered structure of Babel more tiresome than revelatory, I have to say now that Iñárritu’s film looks like Ozu by comparison. Life Itself plays with everything from stylistic fake-outs to multiple unexpected character deaths to narrative twists inside of twists, but no one aspect of the story ever feels tethered to reality. Actually, strike that. Any overlit soap opera currently running on network TV has more emotional weight and depth than this film. Imagine if The Tree of Life was made by Donald Kaufman. Now imagine that, but with less intellectual insight into human nature.
Taking as its central thesis the idea that “the most unreliable narrator is… life itself,” the film makes the case that none of us are the authors of our own stories. There is always something that came before. A chance encounter between two schoolteachers over lunch, a man picking olives in Spain, a woman crying on a park bench on her 21st birthday, a young boy riding a bus in New York, and on and on and on. So, great. All of that happened. But where did it all lead? Life Itself forgets to tell us. It doesn’t even go into full absurdity mode, such as when Synecdoche, New York (to continue the Kaufman comparisons, since he’s ripped off shamelessly throughout the film) finally reveals itself as a piece of art about the futility of art and the futility of trying to find meaning in art and, indeed, in life itself. At least that would’ve been something. Life Itself leaves us with nothing.
Is it just me, or are we living through some kind of inverted golden age of cinema, where filmmakers like Dan Fogelman find it necessary to explain to their audiences who Bob Dylan is? Oscar Isaac, in this film, has never heard of him. He needs Bob Dylan explained to him. Not his music, not the album that another character insists he listen to. Bob Dylan. As a concept. Am I still on planet Earth? Later, Isaac has to explain the concept of memory to his therapist. Fogelman is now on my list, along with Damien Chazelle, of directors who have no idea how to communicate their love of anything into a cinematic form and so instead simply have one character rave about something to another.
Fogelman’s film is nothing more than cynically calculated Oscar bait, but it’s one of the few of that kind in recent memory that will undoubtedly have faded from the Academy’s radar long before ballot season. It’s cruel, petty and meaningless, despite all of its characters screaming at one another that it isn’t any of those things at all. At least its title is appropriate.