Worst of 2018: Life Itself

Life Itself

Today, I’m going to take a look at one of the most divisive films of 2018: Life Itself.

The plot of Life Itself is summarized as follows:

As a young New York City couple goes from college romance to marriage and the birth of their first child, the unexpected twists of their journey create reverberations that echo over continents and through lifetimes.

Life Itself was written, directed, and produced by Dan Fogelman, who is best known for the television show This Is Us, as well as writing films like Cars, Last Vegas, Bolt, Tangled, and Cars 2.

The cast of Life Itself includes Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina), Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride, Criminal Minds), Olivia Wilde (House), Annette Bening (American Beauty), Antonio Banderas (Desperado), Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One, Ouija), and Laia Costa (Victoria).

The film was edited by Julie Monroe, who has cutting credits that include The Patriot, Midnight Special, Loving, Gigli, and World Trade Center, among others. The cinematography was provided by Brett Pawlak, who also shot the films Hellion, Max Steel, We Are Your Friends, The Meddler, and The Glass Castle.

The screenplay for Life Itself was named to the 2016 Black List, which is an annual honor given to a handful of unproduced screenplays deemed to be of high quality. The 2016 list also included The Post, I, Tonya, and Hotel Artemis, which have also been successfully produced.

Following the premiere of Life Itself as the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, a bidding war ensued over the film’s distribution. Ultimately, Amazon bought the distribution rights for a grand total of $10 million. In it’s lifetime theatrical run, however, it only brought in $7.5 million worldwide.

Critically, the reception to Life Itself was deeply divided, with most critics deriding the film and many including it in the conversation as one of the worst films of the year, while casual audiences warmly received the work. On Rotten Tomatoes, the critics score is a dismal 13%, compared to an audience score of 78%. Likewise, Metacritic has the film at a 21/100, while IMDb’s user rating is a far more receptive 6.4/10.

In A. O. Scott’s review for The New York Times, he summed up Life Itself as follows:

There is a lot of [bad writing] here, and also…a lot of good acting. It is poignant and sometimes weirdly thrilling to watch Mr. Isaac, Ms. Wilde and the other cast members…commit with such fervor and seriousness to such utter balderdash.

My initial reaction to this film was almost identical – it is always kind of shocking to see good performers working with sub-par material, and making the most of it. However, I didn’t dislike this film nearly as viscerally and passionately as most critics. It definitely drifts into the realm of sentimental nonsense with reckless abandon, but I kind of expect that from a sappy drama with illusions of cleverness. While the rambling sequences dedicated to the eponymous dissertation did make me want to tear my hair out, I was able to get through most of the film with shrugs and mild sighs. It certainly relishes in depicting the misfortunes of women and children to an uncomfortable degree (I appreciate Slate‘s re-titling of the film to Terrible Things Keep Happening to Nice, Attractive People, Especially the Women). However, I think the performances, at least in the first half of the film, keep the whole mess watchable. In the later chapters, the quality of the performances drops off a bit, which made the film feel way longer than it was to me.

Overall, this film is certainly not great. For the most part it is merely unremarkable, with a smattering of cringe-worthy dialogue segments about faux-philosophical epiphanies. That said, I’m not sure if it is quite the worst of what 2018 had to offer, though. If the performances were a bit weaker, I think this would certainly earn a spot in the year’s basement. As it is, however, I think this is just another overwrought drama with delusions of grandeur that is best to be ignored. There isn’t anything here that couldn’t be better experienced with other films.

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