Everything happens for a reason. While that cliché may be comforting in theory — my heartbreak now will end in bliss later! — it’s lazy in a film. The self-aware Life Itself shoves this message down your throat along with a vat of sugar. Open at your own risk.
The twist is that Dan Fogelman, creator of the twist-heavy NBC hit This Is Us, wrote and directed this dramaromcom. That means you’re going to have to wait like an idiot for the a-ha moment — and endure a load of red herrings along the way. No, Jack didn’t bite the dust from a drunk driving accident or burn up in a fire. He used a faulty Crock-Pot, and there was a fire, and he went back in the house to rescue a cat, and then he died in the hospital from smoke inhalation. Gotcha. And gotcha!
Unreliable narrators, a starry ensemble, a non-linear narrative and multiple chapter cards like “The Hero” are all here to distract you until the trite, heavy-handed life lessons kick in. The precious couple at the center of this jumble are Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde). He’s a neurotic writer; she’s the prototypical Cool Girl that calms him. (Sorry, guys: Most women will not seduce you in bed by citing Bob Dylan statistics from the 1998 Grammys.) Abby has a tough exterior, though. Her parents were killed when she was a child, and she was forced to live with a sexually abusive uncle. This backstory alone could comprise of an entire Oscar-worthy film. In Life Itself, it’s a flashback blot milked for tart laughs.
Abby and Will. A couple destined to be together forever. Then extraordinary tragedy strikes. Jack Pearson-esque tragedy. And it’s relived no less than five times from multiple points of view.
Now meet Mr. Saccione. As played by Antonio Banderas, he’s a soft-spoken land owner that oversees an olive harvest farm. He has all the riches money could buy except for a family of his own. Perhaps he’s still traumatized by his own upbringing. His father, an Italian, was already an old man when his Spanish wife gave birth to him. And he never gave his baby boy the love and attention that he craved. Still embittered, he tries to make personal amends by bestowing good fortune on his most dutiful worker (Sergio Peris-Mencheta).
You may want to cry at all this pain. Just remember that somehow, someway, someday, the suffering will lead to unadulterated happiness. And you will feel emotionally manipulated during every step of this overwrought journey. Life Itself does not deserve your tears.
Though intertwining stories that all come together are admittedly effective in long-term episodic television, on the big screen, the narrative device comes off as a cloying gimmick. That is, unless it’s must be executed with perfection. Remember how in Fogelman’s 2011 gem Crazy Stupid Love we were all surprised that Emma Stone was the oldest daughter of estranged couple Julianne Moore and Steve Carell? That was a well-earned curveball. No need to pile it on by making Ryan Gosling the long-lost son of the guy that Moore was romancing on the side.
Indeed, Fogelman must have lost 10 pounds sweating out the details of his overly ambitious plot. His cast is not just spread out over continents and generations plural, one well-known star exists solely in a dream world. Every actor and actress is appealing and bathed in a warm golden glow. Yet they’re (mostly) wasted in the name of plot machinations. A bait-and-switch involving Annette Bening’s therapist character is especially frustrating. Annette! Bening!
Life Itself made me viscerally angry, and not just it failed to live up to great expectations. (Did I mention Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart and Oliva Cooke are also in the cast?). The problem is that life itself — the term, not the film — rarely snaps together so neatly. Game-changing events don’t happen at a rapid clip. Grief is a slow, tormenting process not easily cured with a Dylan ballad and a cutesy monologue about love. Most people just put their heads down and try to go about their business the best they know how. That’s not sexy, but at least it’s real.
Life Itself, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, opens in theaters on Friday, September 21.
Also published on Medium.