A film review by Craig J. Koban October 11, 2018

LIFE ITSELF j
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2018, R, 118 mins.

 

Oscar Isaac as Will  /  Olivia Wilde as Abby  /  Mandy Patinkin as Irwin  /  Olivia Cooke as Dylan  /  Laia Costa as Isabel  /  Annette Bening as Dr. Kate Morris  /  Antonio Banderas as Mr. Saccione

Written and directed by Dan Fogelman

 

 

The new drama LIFE ITSELF - not to be at all confused with the documentary of the same name about the life and times of late film critic Roger Ebert - is a multi-generational portrait of people that seem inexplicably drawn together via some twisted form of fate.  

It's from writer/director Dan Fogelman, perhaps best known for creating the breakout TV series THIS IS US as well has having penned screenplays for films like CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE and CARS.  The thematic undercurrent to LIFE ITSELF is intriguing, which chronicles how tragedy often creates ripple effects in people from all walks of life, almost to the point of being determined by destiny.  Fogelman's film is also dramatically ambitious and quite thanklessly acted.  Yet, LIFE ITSELF is mostly done in by an underlining script that utilizes some preposterously convenient beats that frankly strains modest credulity. 

That's all too bad, because the film does contain some individual scenes that work marvellously almost on their own apart from the rest of the narrative, not to mention that Fogelman's story begins with great promise, but only later succumbs to its contrived machinations.  I also admired how well LIFE ITSELF captures how memories work - and sometimes don't work - by giving us a broad overview of an individual's life through a series fractured moments that, strung together, try to form a whole impression of what makes people tick.  Unfortunately, the sum of a few of the parts of LIFE ITSELF does not make for a unifying or ultimately satisfying whole.  For the most part, Fogelman's film is like a vast mini-series that's been condensed to a two hour feature film, which leaves it feeling emotionally truncated and lacking in sizeable staying power. 

 

 

The over arching story concerns the lives of multiple couples that spans multiple generations and time periods and how all of them seem intertwined by one truly sad and tragic event.  Then there's the theme contained within of the unreliable narrator, which actually figures in heavily for the life of one young college student that's writing her thesis on the very subject.  LIFE ITSELF opens by introducing us to Will (Oscar Isaac), a struggling screenwriter whose life seems oddly narrated by Samuel L. Jackson (as himself), but true to the unreliable narrator form of the story, this proves to be an ultimate fake out on Fogelman's part.  Instead, we grow to learn the real particulars of Will's existence, which is filled with emotional pain and suffering that he's trying to conquer with some help from his therapist (Annette Bening), with inconsistent levels of success.

As Will receives his counseling from her we discover pieces here and there about his past history with Abby (Olivia Wilde), who has apparently "left him" after a long relationship that began in college and built up towards her pregnancy.  An unspeakable event occurs that forever changes the lives of this couple, and the film then segues several decades into the future to show us how their daughter Dylan (Abby Cooke) ended up as a result, and it's revealed that she too is still having trouble processing the aforementioned tragedy that remains a haunting daily nightmare for her even as a young adult.  Her grandfather Irwin (Mandy Patinkin), who now cares for her, has great difficulty reaching out to this tormented soul.  From here the film then makes a transition to Spain and shows a rich olive company owner, Saccione (Antonio Banderas), that becomes transfixed with one of his farm hands, Javier (Sergio Peris Mencheta), the latter whose life is miraculously tied to the incident that affected Abby, Will and their daughter.  As a result, Javier sees himself becoming estranged from his wife (Laia Costa) and their son Rodrigo (played as an adult by Alex Monner), who eventually grows up, moves stateside to college, and tries to make a life for himself...that is until fate steps in yet again. 

If there's one thing that I really admired about LIFE ITSELF it's the finely attuned performances, all of which seem far better than what the screenplay provides for them to work with.  The actors on parade here do a fantastic job with their respective roles, making them feel like flesh and blood human beings that all are linked through one disastrous incident.  In particular, I liked Banderas quite a bit in his very tricky role that could have been played as a one note villain, but instead the sly performer imbues in his wealthy landowner substantially more relatable layers than a lesser film would have afforded (also great is that all the scenes in Spain are done in the character's native tongue with subtitles, a nice touch).  Costa as well in this story arc has a thorny performance task of playing her long suffering wife that's caught between numerous social stresses that begin to weigh down on her.  Wilde is another standout as Abby, a role that calls upon the actress to radically change up her performance based on Will's accurate and frequently inaccurate memories of her.   

Regrettably, LIFE ITSELF sort of betrays some of the other actors and saddles some great ones with terribly underwritten roles, such as the case with Patinkin's struggling grandfather and Bening's caring therapist.  Cooke in particular is not given much of a character to invest in and develop, which is weird considering how vitally important she emerges as an entity that ties every character in this film together.  What we do learn of her is that she's in a punk band, is prone to violent mood swings, and still grieves over past trauma, but that's about it.  This all reiterates one of the central dilemmas with LIFE ITSELF: It's far too self contained in relation to the time and family spanning epic storyline it's trying to relay.  Some characters come off better than others, and those that seem cut from cookie cutter movie conventions rarely come off authentically.   

And, boy, does Fogelman ever lay things on syrupy thick when it comes to throwing literally everything in but the proverbial kitchen sink in his script, the end result almost laughably coming off as family suffering porn in the process.  People are killed by head-on collisions with buses, one commits suicide by shooting himself in the head, one develops severe mental collapse, one develops inoperable cancer without any chance of recovery...and so on and so on.  The ghastly levels of social horrors that befall these pathetic characters is almost numbing and too numerous to be taken seriously, and when one gets piled up on top of another - and the longer the story progresses - the more viewers will become more inclined to see LIFE ITSELF as the product of a morose screenwriter than that of real people living in the real world that all share ties to a dark event.  After awhile you just start shaking your head in disbelief. 

I get it.  I really do.  Life is the ultimate unreliable narrator.  That's the point of this film.  These characters, despite being apart by distance and time, are all hopelessly intertwined together because life threw them all an unpredictable curveball.  This, of course, builds to a terribly manipulative ending that has to be seen to be believed and features a new character thrown into the mix that gives a sermon that methodically lays out the themes with virtually no subtlety (that, and she's the product of a union between two other previous established characters whose coming together is awfully hard to swallow).  There's a morsel of greatness to Fogelman's concept here about the interconnectedness of the shared human condition, and even though LIFE ITSELF tries incessantly hard to take itself seriously in exploring said ideas, its execution of them is pretty sloppy.  

I don't think that this film is as categorically awful as many critics have pained to relay (it's simply too consummately acted to be considered unwatchable and mawkish garbage), not to mention that I think its vast story threads would have been better served in a long form television format.  Alas, LIFE ITSELF never seems to pull itself together in any meaningful manner as a five-part family saga.  The various actors give it their all and help elevate the problematic material, but for as much raw emotional poignancy that they bring it alone can't forgive the overwrought nature of the whole enterprise.  Moments in LIFE ITSELF did move me, whereas others kind of infuriated me.  Very few other dramas as of late have created such a nagging whiplash effect to their unavoidable detriment. 

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