The title of Life Itself comes from one of its most particularly florid, sophomoric lines, "The most unreliable narrator is life itself." This sentence, or a close variation, is spoken enough times during the length of the film that, if you were to take a shot every single time, you would likely die. Given that you would therefore be spared watching the entirety of Life Itself, this might very well be a worthwhile trade-off.

"The most unreliable narrator is life itself." Gaudy enough that the film even makes a joke about how the student-author who wrote it, Abby Dempsey (Olivia Wilde), got in trouble with her advisor for being a dipshit. But let us not simply trot out this or other examples of the overripe and rotting prose in Dan Fogelman's screenplay so that we can have a merry time ridiculing him. Let us unpack it a bit. Let us gnaw at it intently, like a ragged dog attacking a marrow bone. Perhaps like the film's own dog, given the ain't-I-a-stinker name Fuckface by Abby and her husband Will (Oscar Isaac, giving far and away the worst performance of his career, including the time when he played a fascist California Raisin in X-Men: Apocalypse), who disappears from the movie almost entirely once he has served the purpose of establishing that our protagonists are the kind of garbage hipsters who would name a dog Fuckface. I assume that, rather than being given a tasty bone, Fuckface probably ended by being accidentally speared to death on a barbecuing fork, given that the only way Fogelman apparently knows how to stir up drama or emotions is to kill characters.

But anyway, let's go back to unpacking "the most unreliable narrator is life itself". Abby comes up with this to explain her grand theory of narratology, in which life is an unreliable narrator because it keeps offering surprises that you wouldn't have expected and couldn't predict. If this is what Abby thinks "unreliable narration" means, the wonder is not that her advisor yelled at her. The wonder is that her advisor did not immediately set her on fire. It seems likely that Fogelman knows better, though, given that Life Itself starts with an actual unreliable narrator, Samuel L. Jackson playing himself, who tries to walk us through the opening of a story but keeps getting the details wrong and accidentally tries to make a protagonist out of the woman (Annette Bening) who has just gotten run over by a bus. This is played as zany, fourth-wall-breaking parody, which sets up in no way whatsoever the very drab and dour and melancholic film that will actually follow. It turns out that it's actually the first scene of Will's screenplay, which looks for all the world like it's better than the one we're watching, because even it it's obvious, snotty humor, at least it's humor.

At any rate, once we enter the "real" movie, we get a new narrator, played by Lorenza Izzo, and she will be our constant companion for the rest of the movie's five chapters, as it sketches out the daisy chain of coincidences and horrible tragedies that all swirl around a single event. Note that, despite the unreliability of unreliable narrators being so central to the film that it's titled after them, Izzo's narrator is at no point ever suggested to be unreliable. It seems extremely hard to believe that the movie could possibly expect us not to notice this, but I have a theory. See, Fogelman has one of his characters - which one almost doesn't matter, but there are several at different points - patiently explain the film's themes in tones that suggest that we are not merely idiot children, we are idiot children who are easily bored. Perhaps this is specifically to make sure that we stop paying attention to anything that isn't laboriously spelled out in dialogue, so the film can get away with this and any other contrivances or plot holes or rank errors.

So anyway, five chapters. The first of these sketches out the whole relationship between Abby and Will, and the bad end it comes to, leaving Will an antagonistic, bearded drunk. We see them at their cutest: naming a dog Fuckface, or stopping a Halloween party cold to re-enact scenes from Pulp Fiction, something that stops Life Itself cold as well. And for no reason. My only assumption is that someone noticed that, when Wild is given Uma Thurman's hair, it turns out that they have similar noses and jawlines, and the filmmakers all ran with it. We see them at their warmest, bantering about the baby they're about to have. We see them as Fogelman does a uniquely shitty job at hiding the mechanical work of setting up the Astonishing Twist that ends this chapter, as he reveals things that one of the aforementioned idiot children probably could have worked out twenty minutes earlier, if they hadn't found better ways to occupy their time.

At any rate, the first chapter gets us around one-third of the way through the film. The next chapter picks up 21 years later, with Abby and Will's daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) - so named because Fogelman really loves Bob Dylan's 1997 album Time out of Mind and has Abby break the movie in order to explain why - going through a generic bit of late adolescent angst. We don't really get to learn much about her. Then it's time for Chapter 3 which naturally enough takes us to Spain, where there's a bit of intrigue between a landlord, Saccione (Antonio Banderas), and his tenants the Gonzálezes, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Isabel (Laia Costa). Chapter 4 follows their child, Rodrigo (Alex Mohner), who has one remarkable day as a college student in New York that involves, among other things, breaking up with his girlfriend Shari (Isabel Durant), who is written as the most monstrous parody of the most flagrantly misogynistic stereotype of a flighty rich girl. Seeing her conception of a practical joke, and trying to conceive of the outright psychopathy it took to conceive of this character, then write her down, than ask a human woman to degrade herself by playing her, is almost by itself enough to make Life Itself worth a good hearty hate-watch.

Then comes Chapter 5, which is blessedly only a few minutes long, and which skips ahead at least another 30 years, so we're definitely in at least the 2040s right now, but everybody is still dressing and acting like it's 2015. Here, all of the previous four chapters are tied together in a perfect bow of unspeakable narrative contrivance, one that feels more like doom-soaked Calvinism than the whimsical magical realism Fogelman was presumably aiming for. Also, the film attempts to resolve all of its half-formed emotional arcs, founded on characters it's been almost impossible to like, admire, or identify with, by revealing that all along, the movie was operating on the strong bond we've formed with a character we didn't know existed until about five minutes before the movie ends.

It's a train wreck like none other, a script so divorced from anything recognisably human that it makes 2016's Collateral Beauty and 2017's The Book of Henry - the three films simply ache to be combined into a triple feature from hell, the High Concept Quasi-Inspirational Robot Alien People Trilogy - look perfectly ordinary and unexceptional. Nobody in this film outside of maybe Will's parents, played by Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart, actually resembles a person; and I guess the same could be said for Bening, though she's not so much playing a character as a pair of reaction shots separated by 40 endless minutes of screentime. They're all cogs in a "we're all connected (by senseless death, trauma, and self-hate; also baby-making)" construct that feels more artificial and inorganic by far than the most grotesquely contrived trash of the 2000s hyperlink narrative fad; it feels like a version of the already-not-very-good 2006 Babel that was made by serial killers. I am genuinely not sure when I last saw a film this absolutely deficient as a storytelling object, this alien as a document of allegedly realistic, relatable human behavior, this adept at wasting a pretty great cast, this titanically mistaken about the cunning of its metaphors and the richness of its philosophies and the cleverness of its reflexivity. Simply put, nothing has gone right here - the film is technically adequate, at least, but as a narrative object it's a wasteland, without a single facial expression or turn of phrase or story beat that feels in any way functional, let alone pleasurable.