Review: Life Itself is better than you think, but still not great
Movies are championed for breaking the mold and giving us unexpected moments. It’s all the same old junk, so it’s nice when something out-of-the-box disregards the rules entirely. We’re hungry for maverick filmmaking. Or at least, we like to think we are. If breaking the mold were really valued, studios would be buying avant-garde thesis films by the dozen. Dan Fogelman’s latest film, Life Itself, is overflowing with the unexpected, but I’m not sure it’s very good.
Life Itself is an endless exercise in narrative and tonal shifts. The film opens with a funny sequence narrated by Samuel L. Jackson that turns out to be the first five pages of a screenplay written by a very depressed and bearded Will (Oscar Isaac). Will meets with his therapist (Annette Bening), and recounts his relationship with Abby (Olivia Wilde). The story jumps around and is told out of order, but it’s comfortable non-linear storytelling. Then things get wild. The movie shifts its point of view and takes us on what IMDb calls a “multi-generational saga,” featuring the life of an angsty high-schooler, a farm in Spain run by Antonio Banderas, and the coming-of-age of a Spanish kid (Àlex Monner) moving to New York City. It’s a lot.
Fogelman isn’t be a stranger to this, balancing a multi-generational narrative on the hit This Is Us, and perfectly weaving non-linear storytelling in Crazy Stupid Love. His usual tricks are on display in Life Itself, and they’re effective in surprising the audience, at least. Boy, was I surprised at the twists this movie makes. Did they make a lot of sense, or leave a stirring emotional impact? Nope. But they were surprising as hell.
At a recent Q&A, Fogelman detailed how he wrote the film stream-of-consciousness. It shows. I don’t mean to outright disparage, because sometimes it shows in a good way. There’s an energy coursing through the film as you simply can’t predict which one of six movies it will be next. The shifts in tone almost work due to Fogleman’s very competent writing. The witty moments are really witty and there are moments that I couldn’t help but shed a tear. I felt highly manipulated to do so (not ideal) but still, any emotional response is positive compared to the mundane schlock that permeates the middles of Life Itself.
With the grand goal to capture the scope and feeling of life itself, Fogleman is actually fairly successful, just not dramatically satisfying. Like life, the narrative is sometimes thrilling and twisty, though more often it’s mundane and unsatisfying; there are moments of true beauty that can bring you to tears, but they are spread thin against an otherwise unfocused story that gives viewers little to latch onto. There’s not enough screen time for any one major character, and everytime you start to get attached, you move onto the next one. This is a big part of Fogleman’s point, but it’s still a bummer to watch. Especially when the cast is this good.
The deep bench of heavy hitters all give stirring performances, where my only complaint is that I want to see more. Oscar Isaac holds nothing back, which sometimes comes off as forced, but he’s the sort of actor I’d rather see making big choices than be overly subtle. Annette Bening and Mandy Patinkin win the “we’ve still got it award” for owning every moment they have on screen. The two Olivias, Cooke and Wilde, both very fine actresses, unfortunately don’t get as many moments to show off. Despite having an incongruous plot, everyone in the Spanish-language cast of the film shines. New-ish faces like Sergio Peris-Mencheta and Laia Costa make more of an impact than the veteran Antonio Banderas (who is still great and sexy, don’t worry). The real breakout is young Àlex Monner as Rodrigo. The charming actor has almost exclusively Spanish-language credits, but he’ll get a lot more work in the U.S., assuming people see past the so-so filmmaking to his captivating, natural performance.
While the film has muddled value as a scholarly examination of narrative and protagonists, the real merit is in the popcorn of it all. This is a movie a lot of people will like, despite me not being one of them. The Rotten Tomatoes critical mass has emphatically cast this movie as a failure, but Fogleman is a man of the people, and he knows what we want. This is a dark, dark (did I say dark) story, but the ending has you smile-crying just like an episode of This is Us. Sure, narrative works better on the critically acclaimed show, but this is still something you could recommend to your mom or grandmother, or anyone with a sappy inclination. Both with this film, and maybe reality, Life Itself is not intended for the cynical critic, it’s for people that want to feel.
For fans of: This is Us, twisty non-linear narrative, movies that try hard to make you cry
Pros: Emotional, interesting, A+ actors
Cons: Never enough time to get invested, thinks it’s smarter than it is