You’ve seen Life Itself before.
Well, actually, you probably haven’t. The tragedy porn drama from This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman just suffered one of the worst opening weekends ($2.1m) for any movie debuting in at least 2,500 theaters. That might explain why when I saw it on Sunday afternoon a late-arriving group of grey-haired This Is Us fans motioned to me in the front row and sarcastically quipped, “Can you believe this turnout?” Before that, I had been but one of three people in the theater. After this group, there were 7 of us. In an auditorium that seats 65.
So, it’s safe to say if you have actually seen Life Itself you are in the statistical minority. But, you don’t need to have actually seen the movie to know the general story:
A recognizable ensemble cast (led here by Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde) play out a melodramatic weepie about a diverse group of people whose lives eventually interconnect in surprising, but also somewhat hilariously improbable ways. It’s all meant to say something big and important about life, the world, and our place in it. The title is almost annoyingly desperate to sound profound while at the same time also saying nothing at all. Critics don’t just hate the movie; they despise it. Audiences, meanwhile, like it just fine. Most everyone else, though, is just perplexed by the trailer and stays way.
This year, it’s Life Itself; in years past, it’s been Collateral Beauty (2016). Or 7 Pounds (2008).
In fact, this is, oddly, a Will Smith specialty. Except the difference is Will Smith’s name alone can turn a movie like this into if not an outright hit then at least something which breaks even at the worldwide box office. Life Itself, on the other, is dead in the water, particularly with actual awards contenders like First Man and A Star is Born a week or two away.
The early buzz
It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Fogelman’s the guy who wrote Cars, Tangled, and Crazy, Stupid, Love. He’s enjoyed immense commercial success, but not always critical success (see: Fred Claus; on second thought, don’t). With This Is Us, he finally combined the two, conquering the ratings while also being the now-rare broadcast show to compete in all the major Emmy categories. Life Itself was meant to be his triumphant return to the big screen. It’s the first film a studio could promote by having the movie announcer guy proudly declare “From the Creator of This Is Us Comes You’re Next Obsession” or some other such PR patter.
Buzz on Life Itself was so strong Amazon doled out a near-record $10m to buy it and pull it from its scheduled Sundance premiere, moving it instead to a more awards-centric Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) premiere and late September release. For months afterward, all Fogelman’s friends and colleagues in the industry would tell him is how much they loved the movie.
He, of course, didn’t always trust this. “I think [Life Itself]’s riskier, edgier, less sentimental, super surprising,” one of the This Is Us writers told Fogelman in front of a Los Angeles Times reporter. “It was an experience for me. I thought about the movie for a month afterwards, like it really — it feels more epic, you know what I mean?”
Fogelman’s response: “They compliment me all day — it’s their job.”
Still, he had one heartening story in his back pocket, one he referred to as a “bucket list moment.” It came after he had screened Life Itself for Annette Bening (who has a relatively small part as a therapist) and Mandy Patinkin (who plays grandpa to Isaac and Wilde’s daughter) for the first time. Bening’s famous husband, Warren Beatty, was also in attendance, and afterward he was the only one not showering Fogelman with praise. He wasn’t saying anything, really. He just sat there, silent, for at least five minutes before spontaneously sharing, “Dan? I don’t want you to think I’m not saying anything because I didn’t like the film.I’m finding it a little difficult right now to speak.”
If it’s good enough for Clyde Barrow, the rest of the world doesn’t stand a chance.
Then Toronto happened.
Oh, Toronto. Many a would-be Oscar campaign has died there and thus torpedoed a film’s box office appeal. See: Jason Reitman’s Labor Day. Life Itself, sadly, would be no different, if perhaps more hostile than usual.
It got ugly fast.
Like so many others before him, Fogelman responded to the criticism with a standard “what do critics know?” but updated to 2018 with a “besides, they’re all straight, white dudes anyway.” (His exact quote: “There’s a disconnect between something that is happening between our primarily white male critics who don’t like anything that has any emotion.”)
A fair point, in many instances, but not this one. Life Itself was panned by men and women, black and white. As Alison Willmore noted, it’s arguably a more objectionable film for women than men. It “directly caters to the white male gaze, including the fact that it contains multiple manic pixie dream girls, Olivia Wilde giving a monologue on Bob Dylan’s greatness, and characters who adore [Quentin] Tarantino so much they do PULP FICTION for Halloween.”
Still, Fogelman’s right about normal people connecting with it more than critics:
Ah, screw it – let’s just spoil the whole film
The exact plot of the film, spoilers, told in chapters and across decades, is essentially How My Grandma Met My Grandpa followed by How My Mom Met My Dad. The entire thing is narrated by a mysterious, unseen-until-the-end woman describing the sad, tragedy-stricken lives of two families, one in New York, the other in Spain. We often don’t know what one family’s story has to do with the other, but on two crucial occasions the families intersect at the same exact New York street corner:
On the first occasion, a pregnant woman (Wilde) is hit by a bus and dies in front of her husband (Isaac), but not before the medics can save her baby; on the second occasion, that woman’s daughter is now a messed up, angry, parentless 21-year-old (Olivia Cooke) crying on a bench when she meets the man of her dreams, who also – what a twist! – just happens to have been the Spanish kid who caused the crash all those years ago when he was visiting the city with family and accidentally distracted the bus driver. They instantly fall in love, and then we time jump decades ahead to reveal the film’s narrator is actually their daughter reading from a book she’s written about her family’s impossible story. She titles it: Life Itself. Because of course she does.
The thesis: life is unpredictable. But, also, the universe works in mysterious ways.
If Life Itself works for you, it’s a film you can’t quite shake, the kind of thing that just might inspire you to make some changes in your own life since life is short and often quite tragic; if it doesn’t, it’s because you regard Fogelman’s script as a hackneyed, emotionally manipulative, male ego-driven exercise in sentimental self-indulgence.
It’s a storyline born of tragedy and emotional recovery. Fogelman’s mother died a year to the day before he met his now-wife, Caitlin Thompson. His mother, always his biggest fan, had been diagnosed with a tumor in her abdomen and died in a risky surgery Fogelman advocated for. “I was going to come home and be the hero who wrote talking car movies and fixed his mother with his fancy connections, and it just didn’t work out that way,” he told the LA Times. “It had been such a devastating blow for me, and it was such a big loss. You spend your whole life wondering: ‘What is the worst thing that can happen to me?’ And then it happens and it’s like, ‘What do I do?’”
He spent a year, off and on between making This Is Us and the now-canceled Pitch, working all of that out in his still-forming Life Itself script. One it was finished in 2016, it quickly landed on the Blacklist and turned into a hot property in town.
Knowing that backstory, however, is quite illuminating because the film Fogelman wrote and directed is essentially a parade of guys trying and failing to save women. Then, finally, within hours of losing his mother to cancer, Rodrigo González (Alex Monner) gets to be the knight in shining armor to the poor, crying girl on the park bench, the same girl he will end up marrying and living happily ever after with. The script even refers to him as her hero.
But how do you sell that?
Amazon pitched Fogelman an ad comprised of enthusiastic reactions from filmmakers recorded after an industry-only screening of Life Itself. If everyone in town kept telling him how much they loved the movie why not get some of them on tape saying that? Fogelman, on the advice of his wife, said no. ““I’ve always been a romantic. I like big love and romantic gestures,” he reasoned.
So, Amazon created a “big” and “romantic” trailer…
…that’s also totally confusing and misleading. Fogelman, the LA Times notes, “wanted to convey the message that even though our country is ‘in a difficult period,’ there’s ‘something bigger at play here, and people are not all terrible.’”
Message not received. Life Itself wasn’t supposed to be much of a player at the box office, but its $2.1m debut is still well below expectations (BoxOfficeMojo predicted something in the $5m-$10m range). Not at all what Amazon was hoping for after dropping all those millions on the distribution rights and then giving the film an even bigger theatrical release than The Big Sick.
Before long, Life Itself will be out of theaters and available to stream on Amazon Prime. Only then will it likely find an audience. Until then, well, This Is Us’ new season premieres tonight. Back to the day job, Fogelman.