Life Itself review – a heartfelt effort: part ridiculous, part impressive



Starring: Oscar Isaac Olivia Wilde Mandy Patinkin Olivia Cooke Laia Costa Annette Bening Antonio Banderas. Directed by: Dan Fogelman.

For anyone who made it through the first episode of Dan Fogelman’s emotion punching pilot episode of This Is Us without weeping uncontrollably, the emotion that can be made from life’s detours may have no impact on them. For those of us who ended that first episode sobbing like a child who dropped their ice cream, it will come as a surprise that his epic tale of life. No real surprises.

Directors have often attempted to tell a multigenerational story in the time frame allowed by cinema. Not counting the end career strand stories that defined Garry Marshall’s work but directors like Bill Forsyth with Being Human or Alejandro G. Inarritu with Babel have tried, and ultimately failed, to show what we understand is a basic fact of life. That no one person is an Island, that everything has consequences. Looking to the ambitious but ultimately messy film Cloud Atlas in which the concept that souls are forever changing and becoming new in bodies couldn’t find the words to say what it meant.

Here, Fogelman attempts something similar. The film, in its most basic form follows five different strands. One is the story of college sweethearts Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde who attempt to navigate their relationship over time. The story of Oscar Isaac post-break-up discussing his emotions with therapist Annette Bening. Teenage rebel Olivia Cooke and her grandfather Mandy Patinkin. The life and trauma of a Spanish child, and the three adults that defined his upbringing, and a young girl in present-day New York trying to understand her heritage.

From the start this is an impressive cast: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Mandy Patinkin, Laia Costa, Antonio Banderas, Alex Monner and some good cameos round off a cast that ultimately deserve something better.

Fogelman may be able to tell a compelling multi-story tale on television, but having cut his teeth with Crazy, Stupid, Love this film feels a little like he has one trick and he likes to do it over and over. What the film is trying to do, and not entirely to its fault, is to explain how lives are entwined by the acts of others. But the film doesn’t have the strength of its convictions to be about how we enter lives and leave them.

The film, all the way through, is forever talking about random moments in time but ultimately it’s fear is that it won’t make for a satisfying story. Fogelman’s mistake is to assume that a story needs to satisfy, after all, being a story about life does it need to satisfy? Is the great mystery of life and its infinite unending drama that there aren’t always clear answers? Sometimes people meet, and then never meet again.

Antonio Banderas in Life Itself

Antonio Banderas in Life Itself

That said, the cast does everything they can. Isaac, in particular, does well with a storyline that leads to one of the least deserved plot twists since Remember Me did a surprise 9/11. In fact, despite the A-list actors, the two best performances happen to come from people with limited screen credits. Sergio Peris-Mencheta and Laia Costa manage to make for the most compelling screen couple and their story has the best authenticity to it before once again Fogelman goes headlong into melodrama.

The film suffers from an excess of one motif – perhaps what Fogelman is trying to do is launch his own superhero franchise because not one character gets away without a horrid parental death. Suicide, hit by a bus, horrific car crash, cancer, non-specific age-related dying. Ultimately the film begins to grate on you, as the film continues to throw Bob Dylan references over and over, the same motif, the same scenes, there is nothing that can save you from laughing at its ridiculousness.

Except that ‘Make You Feel My Love’ happens to be a beautifully written song (perhaps Dylan’s best) its use as the emotional motif of the film begins to make you feel something in your gut, that despite the film being overwrought and a little silly at times, it is trying to be about something important, and in its failure, like to so much of life – it manages something quite impressive, and quite beautiful.

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