One almost has to admire how perfectly awful “Life Itself” is. It’s a two-hour torpedo of shameless manipulation and distrustful screenwriting, as if writer-director Dan Fogelman decided t cram all the tear-jerking pathos and storytelling contrivances of a season of his hit TV series “This Is Us” into one sitting.
Fogelman starts with some deliberately hackneyed scripting, with an overbearing Samuel L. Jackson cameo as an unreliable narrator fishing around for a hero — and ending with a therapist (Annette Bening) getting hit by a bus on a New York street.
Psych! The scene is a false alarm. The screenplay-within-a-screenplay is the product of Will (Oscar Isaac), one of the Bening character’s patients. Will is recounting his beautiful romance to Abby (Olivia Wilde), from their free-spirited college days (where Abby’s thesis was about the unreliable narrator) through marriage and the impending birth of their first child. After telling this story, with Will and the therapist walking through flashbacks like Scrooge on Christmas Eve, there’s a tragedy, and nothing is the same after.
Then there’s another tragedy. And another. And another. Each one seems to be meant to illustrate the fragility of life, and the need to make every moment count, and similar Hallmark-worthy sentiments. What they really illustrate is Fogelman’s penchant for disaster porn, and how readily he will jerk the rug out from under any character with whom we might begin to identify.
Thus is a cast of talented actors — a list that includes Olivia Cooke (“Ready Player One”), Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Antonio Banderas and Laia Costa — squandered in a sprawling narrative that spans two continents and, ostensibly, 50-plus years without ever seemingly leaving 2017 and always returning to that single tragic moment. All this while making a pretentious number of Bob Dylan references.
The reasons why “Life Itself” fail so completely all tie to that tragedy, as well. Fogelman has set us up not to trust anything the movie tells us, so we never let our guard down among these characters. And since Fogelman’s convoluted script is more concerned about graphing out the characters’ tenuous connections than their honest emotions, he never leaves room to make us care about them.
Opens Friday, Sept. 21, at theaters everywhere. Rated R for language including sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use. Running time: 118 minutes.