Dear reader, the following is a list of things that happen in the melodrama Life Itself, from This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman. You're not going to believe most, if any, of this, but I solemnly swear — cross my heart and hope to be struck and killed by a bus — that all of this is true.
- The film opens with voice-over narration by "Samuel L. Jackson." I put that in quotes because we're in Dave Chappelle-as-Sam Jackson territory here: He says the F-word a lot, he tells us one character is "gay, but cool gay," and he keeps angrily demanding the camera operator push in on closeups. A few minutes later, Jackson pops up as an extra in a crowd scene, Kangol hat and all, right after someone is run over by a bus. This will not be the last time a character is hit by a bus. It is, however, the last time you'll hear from Samuel L. Jackson.
- In the first of oh-so-many narrative fakeouts — a Fogelman specialty — it turns out this is all happening in a very bad screenplay being written by a very drunk man named Will (Oscar Isaac), whose wife has apparently just left him. He's wasted in a Starbucks and starts yelling lyrics from Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind album.
- There's a dog named F—-face. They say its name a lot.
- Olivia Wilde is Abby, Will's wife, and wow, she's perfect. We know this because the second narrator (not Sam Jackson) tells us she "eats every piece of sushi the waiter serves her." Can you tell a man wrote this movie?
- Oh, Abby also loves Bob Dylan. Will doesn't. He actually asks if he can switch on Hoobastank (!) at one point and Smash Mouth (!!) at another. (This is a flashback, so I guess he changes his mind about Bob Dylan in the future.) Anyway, Abby's like, "Time Out of Mind won three Grammys, including Album of the Year!" Another reason she's perfect: She's a human Wikipedia. I think I hate Bob Dylan now.
- Abby's college thesis is about unreliable narration, because the movie isn't already smug and meta enough about its own unreliable narration. Can you guess what she argues is the ultimate unreliable narrator? Go ahead, take a wild stab at it. That's right — life itself!
- Will tells his therapist (Annette Bening, as a woman so uptight she doesn't even know who Natalie Portman is) that he and Abby always dreamed of being a screenwriting duo, like "a husband-and-wife Tarantino." They're dressed like John Travolta and Uma Thurman from Pulp Fiction when he proposes to her in another flashback. I think I hate Pulp Fiction now.
- There's a little girl who sees her father decapitated in a car accident, and later shoots her child molester uncle in the kneecap. Another little girl tells her grandfather (Mandy Patinkin) that she craves emotional stability like "fat people crave chocolate."
- Someone else gets hit by a bus, but for real this time, and it's the event that changes everything. Like in Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, but stupid.
Then I stopped taking notes. And this is just the first hour of the movie — I haven't even gotten to Will and Abby's punk-rock daughter (Olivia Cooke), or the Spanish family living on an olive orchard whose lives are also affected by these annoying, Dylan-quoting white people.
Because I realized, as this weird, weird film unspooled, that life is just too short. Death is barreling toward all of us, like a New York City bus with an inattentive driver, and so why even bother? Life Itself manages to be cutesy and sadistic at the same time, maudlin one moment and almost horrifying the next, and then it sticks its finger in your face and demands you cry. RIGHT NOW, YA BIG BABY.
Why, it's almost like the film takes the same unpredictable twists and turns as ... life itself! I think I hate movies now. ♦