Is “Life Itself” Too Real For White Male Critics, Or Is It Just Really Bad?

No one could blame Dan Fogelman for being upset about the critical reaction to his new movie, but the director’s self-defense is more cynical than any of the reviews.

The reviews of Dan Fogelman’s new movie, Life Itself — currently running at a cool 12% on Rotten Tomatoes — are not just bad. They're disastrous, rife with the glee reserved for a movie that isn’t merely disappointing, but awful in that special shoot-for-the-moon way where you actually hope everyone you know will see it so that you can all commiserate afterward. BuzzFeed News’ own Louis Peitzman, for example, tweeted that “there was a point during Life Itself that I felt my soul leave my body, and I was jealous of it for being able to exit the theater.”

The film, Fogelman’s second feature as both a writer and director, had a rough time at the box office as well — it made just $2.1 million in wide release its opening weekend, which was definitely not the kind of number hoped for from a movie made by the creator of the smash hit TV drama This Is Us and starring, among others, Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, and Annette Bening. The movie has garnered comparisons to last year’s epic bomb The Book of Henry, which probably wasn’t the reason its director, Colin Trevorrow, was fired from his slated Star Wars movie, but definitely didn’t help his case.

No one could blame Fogelman for getting upset about all of this. But he was quick to pinpoint someone he wants to blame: white men. Life Itself is a decades-spanning melodrama — a hyper-melodrama, really, that compacts a whole television season’s worth of wild romances, wilder coincidences, absent parents, and Spanish olive grove intrigue into a single ridiculous movie. And Fogelman claimed in an interview with TooFab last week that “primarily white male critics” have dismissed his movie because they “don’t like anything that has any emotion.” He spoke about a disconnect he saw between the audiences he’d shown the movie to and what critics were saying (and, as is often the case on Rotten Tomatoes, especially when reviews become a story, the user-submitted ratings differ sharply from the professional ones).

“I don’t feel that often now our pop and film critics are speaking for a sophisticated audience anymore,” Fogelman said. He is absolutely right that criticism is dominated by white men, a topic that’s gotten a lot of public attention recently, thanks to a study from USC Annenberg earlier this year and the involvement of high-profile figures like Sandra Bullock and Brie Larson. The demographics of criticism are in dire need of an overhaul. It’s just not quite clear what that actually has to do with Fogelman’s latest film.

Fogelman walked his bold claims back a bit in an interview with the LA Times, published over the weekend, in which he allowed that “Critics have generally been kind to me over the years, and part of the gig is that you don’t get to pick and choose when you get to listen.” But what’s so remarkable about his initial sentiment is that Life Itself is a movie that is full to the point of bursting with things a stereotypical white guy likes. Like, for instance, Quentin Tarantino, whose Pulp Fiction doesn’t just inspire the film’s segmented, nonlinear, everything-is-connected structure — it’s also saluted onscreen via the Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace costumes that Will (Isaac) and Abby (Wilde) wear for Halloween and an opening voiceover from Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield himself. Life Itself is also low-key obsessed with (noted anathema to white men everywhere) Bob Dylan, whose 1997 album Time Out of Mind is one of the movie’s main throughlines; Fogelman has one of his characters recite what is clearly his own personal unified theory about the legendary singer-songwriter not once, but twice.

Then, of course, you have multiple generations of vivacious, supportive, sylphlike women who love hard and die dramatically in order for the men in their lives to grieve. To generate these feels she must, of course, be the right kind of woman — someone whose life has been sprinkled with damage as if it were seasoning, but who’s still unendingly open-hearted, patient, fond of all the right things, and willing, as Will effuses of Abby, to always eat what the sushi chef puts in front of her, even the uni. The wrong kind of woman, like the luckless Long Island love interest who is introduced as a comic relief placeholder later in the movie, gets summed up only as “loud.” In his pursuit of maximal sentiment, Fogelman inadvertently brings a fresh take to a previously retired type — the manic pixie dead girl.

Critic Nathan Rabin coined the term “manic pixie dream girl” in 2005, when he was writing about Cameron Crowe’s flop Elizabethtown, the movie that would mark the start of Crowe’s decline in critical standing. Life Itself does sometimes recall Crowe’s mode of big-hearted male emoting, with rock accompaniment. But Crowe’s movies didn’t fall out of favor because white men could no longer handle all the sentiment he was offering up; rather, it was because of the increasingly insular, indulgent, and out-of-touch quality of his work (for instance, casting Emma Stone as a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian woman). In the same way, it doesn’t make much sense to suggest that Life Itself was rejected by critics and by audiences because it was just too emotional — especially at a moment when those critics have been falling all over the swoony A Star Is Born and audiences are showing a renewed appetite for romance.

It's long been a comfort for creators to take refuge in the idea that critics Just Don’t Get their work — hell, the recent biopic Gotti, starring John Travolta, turned its dismal 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes into a marketing campaign that stopped just short of calling reviews “fake news.” And yes, it is essential to be aware that reviews are inherently subjective and reflect the preferences and experiences of the people writing them; it is important to keep in mind just how narrow the demographic makeup of the critical corps is, and how that might affect the way a movie will be received. But there’s something incredibly depressing about how, just as we’ve started having serious discussions about the need for diversity in criticism, those ideas are being turned into a weapon wielded broadly against any and all assessments of one’s work.

At the very least, if Fogelman’s going to claim that it’s white men who are tanking his work, he should really do better than erase from view all the women critics, among them multiple writers of color, who’ve panned the movie (which, ironically, shares its far-reaching title with a 2014 doc about a white male film critic). Fogelman, in both the TooFab and LA Times interviews, refers to critics as “cynical.” But it’s hard not to see what he’s doing as even more so, especially given how heavily the latter article cites praise coming almost exclusively from people who either work with or for Fogelman. “They compliment me all day — it’s their job,” he’s self-aware enough to say at one point. But he doesn’t seem self-aware enough to wonder if the disconnect he feels is really between critics and audiences, or between an increasingly powerful (white, male) Hollywood figure and people who do not feel professionally obligated to affirm his talent.

It has to hurt to pour your heart into something and have it be poorly received, but it’s also painful to see someone carelessly borrowing the language of social justice to speak about something that seems to have very little to do with systemic bias. Especially given that Fogelman, in the same interview, suggested that the media has not adequately recognized the merits of his acclaimed, award-winning series This Is Us, and that there’s a “group speak” conspiracy against his work that does not reflect the real will of the people. At least that assertion, distinctly Trumpian in flavor, is rhetoric that plenty of white men would understand. ●

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