Life Itself plays out like a two hour glorified soap opera: all drama, no real substance. Written and directed by Dan Fogelman, the man behind the hit television series This Is Us, the film drags you into its emotionally manipulative multiple stories of sadness, as told through multiple generations. Look, if you enjoy the sappy melodrama of This Is Us, you’ll probably end up liking Life Itself. If you, like me, find that entertainment like this just tries to play on your emotions by inserting as many sad things as it can without ever really earning enough of it, then you’ll probably be better off catching a different movie this weekend.
Life Itself tells several different tales. Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde) fall in love, live a happy life together in New York, and begin to welcome a new baby girl into their lives. This is the first chapter, and the second picks up with the life of their daughter. After that, we cut to the life of a Spanish man, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), his wife, Isabel (Laia Costa), and his boss, Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas) and the story of their time together. While certainly bold in this sense, Life Itself suffers from not focusing on a single protagonist or singular plot line. Fogelman’s choice to not commit to this, and jumping around through time and across continents, ends up feeling disjointed and makes the director come across as someone who had too many different ideas for one movie. Instead of being able to come up with enough to fill a whole film’s runtime based around one story, Fogelman just tosses everything in, connecting them by a very thin incident.
Nobody in Life Itself is happy. Everyone’s life ends up sucking one way or another, usually through trauma. And that trauma is most directly inflicted upon the women of the film to get them out of the way, leaving the men to be the ones left to suffer and sympathize with. It’s a bit askew – the dramatic events that happen to the women are always out of their control, whereas the men are the only ones who make the decisions that keep the plot moving.
Too many depressing moments seem to just occur for the sake of occurring; the film rarely earns its big moments of shock and heartbreak, choosing instead to just shoehorn them in there for the sake of a reaction. None of the characters get enough time to develop into real people, and their dialogue is almost always obvious movie speak. It’s speech that is far too profound to be realistic, it’s more like the way people wish they could talk rather than the way they actually do. This lack of development and relatability hurts the film during moments that should be shocking and emotional gut-punches. We see these characters go through trauma just because, instead of said trauma being there to drive the narrative.
There are still a couple of bright spots in this dismal movie though, so I need to give credit where credit is due. The cast is fantastic, and everyone involved turns in a very strong performance. Oscar Isaac continues to show Hollywood that he’s here to stay, giving audiences an open and vulnerable portrayal of a man in the midst of a mental downward spiral. His performance alone is one of the only things that extracted an emotional reaction out of me, and he has a genuinely jaw-dropping, unexpected moment with his therapist (Annette Bening) that is sure to stun whoever watches the film. Antonio Banderas brings some of his best acting to the film as well. Saccione is a man who has everything and yet nothing, and while still sadly underdeveloped like every other character, Banderas gives it his all (the man gets a monologue telling his life story that borders on what feels like 20 minutes).
The entire second half of Life Itself leaves New York behind in favor of Spain, focusing on the characters that reside there. It feels extremely disconnected from the rest of the film. Yes, there is an incident that connects them to the stories of the New York characters, but it’s something that could have just as easily happened to them in their hometown. It feels like something entirely different. Oscar Isaac’s story gets about 30 minutes, his daughter gets about 20, and then Antonio Banderas and Sergio Peres-Mencheta get almost a full hour. Again, Fogelman seems unsure what kind of story he wants to tell, so he opts to simply tell them all at once. That said, the story set in Spain is at least a little interesting, and it’s shown almost entirely in Spanish, which is a wonderful and refreshing example of strong representation.
Life Itself is a big stumble, declaring broad, sweeping thesis statements about how life is an unreliable narrator, and only dedicating itself to that idea for the first half hour before going off to talk about something else, and then something else after that. It spoon-feeds its stories to the audience through narration and montages, and while those montages of the passage of time are a bit fun editing-wise, it still comes across like the film doesn’t trust people to follow the simple plots. The first few minutes are narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, and it’s almost like it tricks you into believing that this movie is going to be a lot more fun that it actually ends up being. Like the way it treats its thin characters, this film is a bit cruel to its audience for no discernible reason.
Despite boasting an impressive cast that gives it their all, Life Itself and the stories it tries to tell feel disconnected and distant, attempting to be dramatic and only coming across as pandering.
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