- Amazon Studios
- Olivia Wilde and Oscar Isaac in Life Itself
I wish I'd known ahead of time what Dan Fogelman's Life Itself had in store for me. While I'd seen Fogelman's 2015 feature Danny Collins, with Al Pacino as an aging pop star trying to make amends for his misspent life, I was unfamiliar with his TV series This Is Us, which has been described to me in ways that make it sound like somebody attempting to cram 10 pounds of "all the feels" into a 5-pound bag. If I had seen the show, maybe my psyche might have been prepared for Life Itself's full frontal assault on my ability to process theoretically tear-jerking moments. Many have been the days since the last time a motion picture so shamelessly insisted "You will know the majesty of the entire human experience, so help me God, or else."
And it's no simple thing to convey what is so enthusiastically batshit about Life Itself. It is seasoned so liberally with things that might be considered spoilers that those things are less seasoning than they are the meal itself. On a simple narrative level, it weaves back and forth between multiple time periods, exploring the lives and loves of multiple characters. Will (Oscar Isaac) talks to his therapist (Annette Bening) after an emotional breakdown when his wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde), leaves him. Years later, a young woman named Dylan (Olivia Cooke) wrestles with the tragic arc of her life. Across the world in Spain's Andalusia region, a wealthy olive farmer (Antonio Banderas) becomes entangled in the lives of one of his workers (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and his wife (Laia Costa). Then that couple's son, Rodrigo (Àlex Monner), faces his own trials with love and death.
In Life Itself, Fogelman tips his hat early and often to Pulp Fiction in everything from a snippet of the film to Will and Abby dressing as Vincent and Mia for a costume party to an actual Samuel L. Jackson cameo. That movie's intersecting achronological chapters might provide a basic foundation for what Fogelman is trying to do, but all similarity ends there. Life Itself rapidly morphs into the kind of movie that will stop at nothing to tug at your heartstrings, including an incalculable number of character deaths and an improbably-even-more-incalculable number of meet-cutes where people profess their love in florid prose. From scenes in which characters physically observe events from their memories, to loooooong monologues, to enough reminders about unreliable narrators that you might just want to burn every university English department to the ground, Fogelman concocts a would-be opera that can't carry a tune.
Indeed, perhaps the most baffling thing about Life Itself is that the concept almost pleads to be a musical. It's one of those stories where you can be excruciatingly certain that all roads will lead back to the same place, and where all tragedy is part of the grand symphony of life, so it feels weirdly overwrought when people are talking those feelings rather than singing them. This is already a story that is so earnest about insisting on the unpredictability of "real life," yet goes to such lengths to remind viewers that it's a movie—what with its narrating voices and passage-of-time montages and complete obliviousness for ensuring that the story's timeline makes sense when you do the math. Fogelman somehow is convinced that the way to drive home the emotional authenticity of his story is to drown it in artifice, but not people breaking into song.
To Fogelman's savvy credit, he seems to anticipate critical reaction to Life Itself with a late stretch of dialogue about the critical response to Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind, suggesting we're only able to praise brooding darkness, but not naked optimism about the healing power of love. Yet the problem with Life Itself isn't that it's optimistic; it's that Fogelman just doesn't know when to stop shoveling feels into that 5-pound bag.