Dan Fogelman has become one of the most powerful men on network television thanks to the gargantuan success of NBC's This Is Us. The tear-jerker comedy-drama has helped revive its network's fortunes and already has a slew of awards to its name. Fogelman's film career has been less acclaimed, with writer credits on films like Cars, Fred Claus, and Last Vegas. His latest effort as a writer and director, Life Itself, recently premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival ahead of its US release on September 21, and reviews were, to put it mildly, bad.
Watch: The Life Itself Trailer
Life Itself stars Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas and Annette Bening, and opens wide across America this week. The film is described as a multi-generational love story that follows various couples across time and the planet. Reviews from TIFF were tepid and that has only gotten worse since critics outside of Toronto saw it. Fogelman decided to fight back against the reviews in an interview on TooFab published Wednesday, although his defense confused people more than anything else:
"I think that something is inherently a little bit broken in our film criticism right now. I also think it's somewhat broken in our television criticism, I think that the people with the widest reach are getting increasingly cynical and vitriolic and I think there are a couple of genres and a couple of ideas that they [attack, which] doesn't speak to not just a mainstream audience, but also a sophisticated audience. There's a disconnect between something that is happening between our primarily white male critics who don't like anything that has any emotion."
While Fogelman is right that film criticism is primarily a white male domain - a recent study from University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative discovered that, in 2017 in a pool of close to 20,000 reviews from leading American newspapers, sites, and broadcast outlets, male critics authored a staggering 77.8% percent of reviews – it feels like an unfair card to play in this conversation. No film is immune from criticism and plenty of female critics hated Life Itself.
The film currently has a Metacritic score of 21 and sits at 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. We’ve compiled a selection of some of the most damning.
I’ve tried, but I can’t quite pinpoint what Life Itself is trying to say, though Fogelman certainly hits us over the head with the idea that it’s about this crazy, mixed-up world and fate and chance and blah blah blah. It’s actually about how a bunch of shitty things happen to these people. As the film spirals into an ever-widening scope, spanning decades and continents, it connects far-flung families through their shared, dumb tragedies.
I wish I could report that Life Itself doesn’t seem creepily delighted with just how surprising its cavalcade of mortality is. But there are two plot points—one hinging on a freak accident and the other on a suicide—that are indefensible, that serve only to stun the viewer into submission. Fogelman’s script is obsessed with how a single event can reverberate across generations, but rather than pick up on something small, he devises something indisputably horrifying. When a person dies, Life Itself argues, it can shape many other peoples’ lives. No kidding.
It is sentimental and sprawling, which are not necessarily bad things, but also manipulative and contrived, which very much are. And though the terms “life” and “story” are used throughout as though they’re almost interchangeable, it never manages to convince us of that equivalence: Rather than ring with the noise of life itself, “Life Itself” clamors to the sound of the writer Fogelman very loudly writing.
A few repetitive themes and musings overstay their welcome, none more egregious than the constant reminder that we are being led by an unreliable narrator who is withholding knowledge. It’s like a kid on Halloween who goes to the same house many times, with each subsequent appearance wearing on our patience. This is how the movie accounts for its revolving carousel of characters, but in trying to smarten up the mushy plot, the narrative device becomes a nuisance.
When not attempting to reverse-engineer gratitude and awe, Fogelman feigns intimacy with gentle guitar music and claustrophobic close-ups that repel the gaze. There are no life lessons to be gleaned, but fear not: Anyone who wants to question the point of existence will find the film itself an excellent prompt.
How do you rate a cinematic black hole that doesn’t deserve a single star? Do you simply give it five eyerolls? Better question: How does a movie, with all the talent in the world going for it, become a such a blithering botch job? That’s Life Itself... the melodrama goes thunderously wrong from the very first scene, steadily getting worse before going up in a hellish blaze of gross incompetence, crass tear-jerking, unrelenting tragedy porn, unearned self-congratulation and leaden dialogue that hits you like a blunt force trauma.
All movies are manipulative. It’s their job to nudge us toward some sensation we weren’t expecting. But once in a while a film jets right past the boundaries of artfully contrived tearjerking into a kind of blunt hostage taking. Life Itself, written and directed by Dan Fogelman, the master manipulator behind television’s This Is Us, is so perversely jaw-dropping in its attempts to extort feelings out of us that it could almost be a black comedy. But no, this one is playing it straight.
The extent to which your tear ducts well up on cue in Life Itself — a function built into this assaultive bout of emotional uplift with the tireless regularity of a self-flushing toilet — will depend on your threshold for watching people smile through pain... But even sob-aholics might feel they’re being unfairly prodded once they start adding up the tragedies that befall the linked characters here over five individually titled chapters.
There were some positive reviews amid the negativity too.
Fogleman purists will not be disappointed. The last 20 minutes of the film are an absolute blood bath of sentimentality, with an uplifting and sticky message that we are who we come from. That we carry the spirits of our loved ones into the next chapter of their story by living our own lives. But it is the darkness that makes this a movie grownups can enjoy, and will surely make it a valuable library title for Amazon — and a valuable next step for Fogelman as a creator.
Fans of the series will recognize some of the style points, but… this is a deeper, even richer human experience that takes great storytelling risks but pays them off in completely satisfying and moving fashion.
While the reviews haven’t been what distributor Amazon Studios were hoping for, paying audiences at TIFF were reportedly much more positive about Life Itself, and given the popularity of This Is Us, there is clearly an audience for an old-fashioned weepie movie.
Are you looking forward to Life Itself? Do the reviews sway your opinions? Let us know in the comments.
- Life Itself (2018) release date: Sep 21, 2018