Life Itself, 2018.
Written and Directed by Dan Fogelman.
Starring Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Olivia Cooke, Annette Bening, Jean Smart, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin, Àlex Monner, Lala Costa, Isabel Durant, Adrian Marrero, Lorenza Izzo, Jake Robinson, Charlie Thurston, Gabby Bryan, and Samuel L. Jackson.
As a young New York couple goes from college romance to marriage and the birth of their first child, the unexpected twists of their journey create reverberations that echo over continents and through lifetimes.
Tragic death, suicide, references to child molestation, family troubles, mental instability, abandonment, and whatever else I’m forgetting (there’s a lot of dark material here for a romantic drama about the unpredictability and meaning of life) are all individual elements explored in various films, and naturally, when dealing with such sensitive material it’s tricky to incorporate it tastefully into a story. What makes writer-director Dan Fogelman (the widely popular This is Us) think he can tackle them all in a relatively short window of two hours doing them all justice is certainly a mystery. It would be unfair to label Life Itself the disaster you probably are hearing that it is, as it’s more of an ambitious exploration of multi-generational pain and suffering, intertwining character arcs, and maintaining optimism in the face of hopelessness, all of which flies off the rails further and further with each passing scene. You can feel the story getting away from Dan Fogelman, and although much of what happens is off the charts random, eventually we do begin to catch on to his admirable endgame.
Complicating matters is the idea of one particular character played by Olivia Wilde attempting to write a college thesis arguing that the unreliable narrator device is always unreliable. As you can probably guess, Dan Fogelman takes this piece of the narrative and uses it to further play around with the story, so much that the introduction to the film features a Samuel L. Jackson cameo narrating a few scenes. It’s as bizarre as it sounds and is meant to tie into the fact that lovers Will and Abby (Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde) are huge Quentin Tarantino buffs that enjoy dressing up as Pulp Fiction characters for Halloween.
The pair is expecting their first child as we briefly get to learn about them in multiple flashbacks that come stylized as if we are watching A Christmas Carol, meaning that yes, present-day versions of these characters reflect on the past as if they have gone back in time. At one point it seems as if the past can sense interactions from the present, noticeably from a quick moment where Oscar Isaac brushes his hand against his face while his older-self goes to touch it. None of this comes back at all in the grander scheme of the story, but it’s just worth pointing out that amid all of the highly questionable narrative twists and turns, the movie does have style along with the talented cast trying their best to make every melodramatic moment less forced.
The film also subtly deals with the fact that most of its male characters are attempting to save female characters from past trauma or unfortunate living conditions by loving them, when in reality they are stronger than that and don’t necessarily need romance. It also doesn’t really follow through on that notion, which feels like a huge missed opportunity in terms of the film saying anything of substance besides “sometimes life sucks, but you just have to get back up and push forward” and other such Hallmark nonsense.
By the time Chapter 3 rolls around (yes, the film that features characters in love with Quentin Tarantino even adopts his signature style of breaking films up into five chapters) Life Itself completely shifts focus to a new group of characters and an entirely new location in the form of going from New York to Spain. The transition is so jarring that, at the moment, it feels like you’re watching an anthology, but rest assured, Dan Fogelman has a number of convoluted methods to bring everyone together. On top of that, there are quite a few details that don’t even make sense. I can’t even imagine how much the film truly falls apart if you really go digging into the timeline of events and decisions of all of its various characters. Nevertheless, this look at new faces allows for some more decent performances from reliable actors such as Antonio Banderas and lesser-known names like Lala Costa.
The overall message Life Itself is reaching for would register as emotional if the script wasn’t constantly resorting to tragedy; it’s beyond sadistic what Dan Fogelman throws at these characters. Furthermore, when you start throwing all of the worst things that can happen in the world in one movie,, it begins to not register as disturbing, but rather incredibly frustrating watching a filmmaker try to portray uncharted levels of unearned emotion. Sure, there are a few surprising moments, but at the cost of taking the movie seriously. There is no room to develop these characters beyond the life-altering moments that define them, resulting in an experience that rings hollow. I will say this though, it’s too preposterous to ever be boring. Sam Jackson would have had one hell of a time narrating this insanity in its entirety.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com