September 17, 2018

Life Itself: When the critics don’t get it!

I had the chance to see a pre-opening of Life Itself, coming to theaters September 21, 2018, and, go ahead, call me a sap: I loved it. The critics don’t. Here are early stats: 21% Rotten Tomatoes, 28% Metacritic, 1.54 Roger Ebert. Critics have even said that Dan Fogelman, who wrote and directed Life Itself, doesn’t understand how a movie works, the inference being that he doesn’t understand narrative—when that is exactly what this film is ultimately about.

Dan Fogelman is well-known for Crazy, Stupid, Love, a flick that rings way true and wildly entertains, and, yes, I loved it, too, and for the television series This Is Us that I have to admit to not having seen.

So, you can’t call me an out-and-out Fogelman fan. Haven’t seen any of his other flicks either.

So here goes on why I think the critics don’t get the flick Life Itself.

The critics call this film manipulative, perhaps even mannered or affected in the telling. They miss Fogelman’s central thesis: That art, a story told, a movie watched, a narrative that tries to make sense of the unspeakable can help us face the curve balls that life throws.

The opening of Life Itself relies on an unknown voice-over throughout its chapters. Yes, the film, like a novel, works in short chapters, four of them and an epilogue. In the first chapter, the voice-over tells us, “No one knows where their story is going or who the heroes in it are going to be.”  

That one key sentence describes life but not narration that seeks meaning in the face of meaninglessness. 

In that opening chapter, Olivia Wilde, who plays Abby to Oscar Isaac’s Will, states the premise in her proposal for her college thesis: She argues, quite smartly, I might add, that the author of fiction is always an “unreliable narrator,” in some sense, because the distance between what we write as authors and what is told always involves an artful lie. 

I argue that Fogelman is not asserting that fiction lacks emotional truth or that memoir is better, for that matter. What he is saying is that narration requires a leap, what used to be described to you by your English teacher as “the suspension of disbelief.”

As a commentary on narration, he and Abby are correct.

Then Abby and the movie go on to assert, to extraordinarily sharp criticism by movie critics that Fogelman states the obvious, that the “ultimate” unreliable narrator is life itself. From there on out, the critics take the film apart as trite, sentimental and manipulative. “Get your hankies out for this Hallmark card” might be another way to state the overall criticism this film is getting before its city-wide opening. 

What they do not get is Fogelman’s subject: The importance of narrative in our lives to make sense of the unspeakable.  

 Abby’s professor of literature fails her thesis because, as he asserts, she appears to think she has wandered into a creative writing class. What the critics miss is this: That  is Fogelman’s point. 

What the critics I’ve read could attack but don’t is that the film operates on what we writers term “the fortunate coincidence” to drive the narration. That may be fair criticism but also Fogelman’s point.

The key chapters, without revealing the story fully, focus on an accidental death, (one in the present action of the story and two in Abby’s troubled past), a suicide that results from the accidental death, a child-witness to the accidental death who later appears in the story as a grown man, and a death from illness, all in separate tales that ultimately and “fortunately” become linked in the epilogue. 

And I’ll come back to that closing for it is key to the way the narration operates in chapters with an authorial, omniscient narrator.

Abby, Will’s adored wife, also adores Bob Dylan and his Time Out of Mind album recorded when he was 56 in 1998 when many thought he might be washed up. Abby tells us how much he was criticized for including in the series of despairing rockers, a melodic love song ballad “Make You Feel My Love” and insists, while in bed with Will, that he listen to it, that he pay attention. As an aside, this song may be Dylan’s most-covered ballad. 

On point here, in the movie, the voice-over tells us that even Garth Brooks recorded it. On point here in this review, the song was called by critics at the time “a clunker,” and that fact is the key to the narration Fogelman bravely asserts in this flick. Here’s one of the lyrics we hear in the film: “When the whole world is on your case/ I could offer you a warm embrace ….” 

Dylan’s decision to include this gorgeous ballad was not a mistake, as some called it, but his point.

Life will bring us to our knees says the narrator who is finally revealed as a writer at a reading in a bookstore for her book entitled Life Itself. This is my story, she says, and there she stands. 
She is the storyteller. She is arguably the unreliable narrator of this tale full of fortunate coincidences that drive the film to its well-earned close. 

Admittedly, I reveal here that I have been brought to my knees by the death of my 46-year-old son on November 4, 2017. I’ve been artistically paralyzed: Can’t write, haven’t posted a column here for this year that closes on the memorial of his death in 2018. 

But today, as Fogelman and his stand-in author in the bookstore suggest, I got off my knees and wrote this review of a moving film with brilliant and controlled performances by Annette Benning as a shrink who sneaks smokes; by Mandy Patinkin as a beleaguered grandfather; by Olivia Wilde as a joyful Dylan lover and literature commentator; by Oscar Isaac as an outrageous, oversensitive and endearing lover; by Sergio Peris-Mancheta as a controlled, warm and loving and nearly martyred spouse; by Antonio Banderas as an unlikely hero with one of the longest soliloquys in the film, beautifully done.

Yes, life is unreliable. Yes, life sometimes is unbelievable. Yes, life will bring us to our knees. 

And, yes, this much-criticized film will get you in the heart, but not through the manipulation it is being criticized for, but through its narrative insight that shows us how, despite all that brings us down, a story can get us to see that we must get up off our knees. 

Note: Dylan’s ballad is also attached here:

Mary Tabor is the author, most recently, of the novel Who by Fire, reviewed on FactsandArts by Michael Johnson.