‘Life Itself’ Review
The theory is that heavy dramas find it challenging to attract an audience during times when real life and newscasts are filled with daily downers. One need only tune in to the local news to see that we are in just such a “downer” period right now, and it would be difficult to argue that Life Itself, the latest from writer/director Dan Fogelman (“This is Us”) is anything but the weightiest of heavy dramas – with an emphasis on the preciousness of time and life.
It’s highly likely that this film will fall into the love it or hate it category. It’s a sure bet that many critics will bash it as pretentious and overly melodramatic. It will be labeled a manipulative tear-jerker with outlandish coincidences. I won’t debate the merits of that criticism, but instead will remind all that creative fictional storytelling can often seem fantastical and improbable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be entertaining, thought-provoking and carry a worthwhile message.
Because of the overlapping and intertwining stories, characters and timelines, filmmaker Fogelman breaks the film into 5 chapters. This should allow most viewers to keep track. Chapter 1 is entitled “The Hero” and features Samuel L. Jackson as the unreliable narrator – a recurring theme throughout. It’s also in this chapter that we meet Will and Abby. Will (Oscar Isaac) is an emotionally unstable man who has been in a mental institute for the 6 months since his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) left him. He is despondent and attending required sessions with a therapist played by Annette Bening, and we get cutesy flashbacks to the Will and Abby courtship. See, Abby and Will are the kind of couple who see themselves as Tarantino characters, argue about the merits of Bob Dylan (poet or Chewbacca noises?), and come up with the worst dog name in cinematic history.
Chapter 2 is where we meet Dylan Dempster, daughter of Will and Abby, and granddaughter of Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart. She is named after the poet songwriter, not the Star Wars character. There is a cool effect that evolves Dylan’s face from a child surrounded by death and tragedy to a just-turned-21 year old played by Olivia Cooke (Thoroughbreds), who also happens to front an atrocious punk rock band and flashes quite the temper. Chapter 3 shifts from New York City to Carmona, Spain where we are introduced to “The Gonzalez Family” of Javier (an outstanding Sergio Peris-Mencheta), his wife Isabel (another excellent performance from Laia Costa, Victoria), and Javier’s boss Saccione (Antonio Banderas). Javier works Saccione’s olive orchard, as he and Isabel start a family. Chapter 4 focuses on their son Rodrigo (Alex Monner) as he grows into a talented young man, while his beloved mother suffers with a debilitating disease. Finally, in Chapter 5 we meet Elena Dempsey-Gonzalez (Lorenza Izzo) and the story comes full circle…or all the dots are connected. Even the identity of the narrator who took Samuel L. Jackson’s place after Chapter 1 is revealed.
Filmmaker Fogelman seems to be better suited as a writer (Crazy, Stupid, Love) than as a director (Danny Collins), and his script here is extraordinary in its ambition. While there may be some developments that seem contrived, there are also some terrific moments throughout. We see a cross-continent ripple effect that makes this the Crash of family dramas. Who is a hero and who is a villain is one of the key elements here. Fogelman seems intent on making the point that traumatic events and tragedy shape who we are as people. The message is that our ability to bounce back – to “stand up” after being knocked down, is really what defines the human experience. For those who keep an open mind, the emotional jolts provided here will likely resonate.