Life Itself, 2018.
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.
A young couple in New York meet, get married and have a daughter. But their life together doesn’t go smoothly, with its twists and turns creating echoes for other families, couples and individuals down the years and across continents.
Dan Fogelman’s star has been riding high on the back of the success of TV’s This Is Us, his enormously popular multi-character epic drama. Presumably with the “why change a winning formula?” mantra in the back of his mind, he’s brought a similar idea to the big screen with Life Itself. But there’s one crucial difference between the two. The movie simply doesn’t work.
On paper it promises much, particularly where the cast is concerned. Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas are the big names, but right behind them are the likes of Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Laia Costa and Olivia Cooke. All good so far. But then comes the story and the script and it all starts to fall apart. Except that it takes a whole two hours to do it. Starting with the admittedly appealing coupling of Isaac and Wilde in New York, the film also introduces his psychiatrist (Bening), the daughter from the marriage (Cooke) and a family in Spain that eventually becomes linked to the American side of the story.
Explaining those connections is tricky enough, especially when the narrative jumps time zones, but it does it so often that what starts off as being confusing ends up being downright irritating. And it doesn’t help that it looks like everything is happening all in the same year. Everything, incidentally, means just about managing to exclude the emotional kitchen sink: there’s grief, shocks, love, lost love, tears, anger – they’re all there, interwoven into a very uneven canvas.
The story is told in chapters: you would hope that being fed bite-size chunks in this way would make it more digestible. If only. Worse still, Fogelman is like a dog with a bone when it comes to the idea underlying everything. That life changes and you never know what’s going to happen next. Or, in the more pretentious words of the film, “life is an unreliable narrator.” Not that we didn’t know this already, but Fogelman thinks otherwise, so he insists on explaining it – firstly when Wilde uses the idea for her university thesis which, incidentally, is something of a flop. And, just in case we didn’t get it first time round, it’s explained at tedious length all over again at the end.
It’s not long before you start feeling sorry for everybody involved. This is a film with its heart in the right place – but that’s the only thing that is. The cast do their best with what they’re given and, while there are some moments which do have a ring of truth about them, they’re more than outweighed by those that don’t, the melodramatic nature of the plot and the creaking dialogue. Even when it’s in Spanish with English subtitles.
Inevitably, the film’s threads have to be tied up nice and neatly and with a big metaphorical bow for good measure. Everything is explained for us, but it’s nothing that we haven’t worked out for ourselves, unreliable narrator included, and the end result is a film which is patchy, frustrating and, put very simply, a bit of a mess.
Life Itself was shown at the London Film Festival on Monday 15th, Tuesday 16th and Thursday 18th October and is released in the UK on January 4th 2019.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.