Starring: Oscar Issac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Laia Costa, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Alex Monner, Jean Smart, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Lorenza Izzo, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Dan Fogelman
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Rating: R for Violent Accidents and Millennial Hipster Profanity
Release Date: September 21, 2018
Thanks to Crazy, Stupid, Love. (which he scripted) and This Is Us (which he created), Life Itself writer/director Dan Fogelman is now as synonymous with the game-changing twist as M. Night Shyamalan. He’s due for a backlash, and Life Itself is the perfect specimen to engender that anger. The film itself is not so much about the twist itself so much as it is about the entire concept of twists. Fogelman withholds essential information that prevents us from knowing until he wants us to know how various generations of people are related by coincidence or even closer connections. But he constantly shows his hand, or at least part of his hand, to let us know that a reveal is coming. In fact, this is all kind of a deconstruction about how we tell stories and save twists for maximum impact. I actually believe that such a theory-heavy idea could work, but the product we have here is filled with characters and events that are just exhausting.
The action is split by time and the Atlantic Ocean. In New York City, we’ve got Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), a mostly happy couple who might have some insidious relationship issues lurking. Meanwhile, over in Spain, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) works the field and romances the waitress Isabel (Laia Costa). Along the way, we meet some of their parents, children, and employers. We immediately know how some of them are connected, while we then watch the other puzzle pieces come together in non-linear fashion to discover the rest of the connections. There could be a satisfying thrill to how the final twist weaves everyone together, but instead it is just exhausting, as all the misfortunes that these characters endure and the bad decisions that they make make for an excess of tragedy that is too much for any audience to bear.
Still, the ultimate lesson that Fogelman wants to convey is worth listening to and following: no matter what our history, no matter how much life has brought us to our knees, there is still a future worth pursuing. Life Itself does not need to be as excruciating as it is to make that point, but it is a valuable point nonetheless. And despite my misgivings, I still found this film oddly compelling, although that could just be because I like keeping track of how people are related to each other. Ultimately, I wish Fogelman had done more with the concept of playing around with the unreliable narrator, which he is clearly enamored with but ultimately a little tepid in how he examines it. It actually starts off promisingly, as the initial narrator shows up in person as himself to basically say, “Hey look, I’m really here!” But afterwards it’s pretty straightforward, but if that adventurous spirit had hung around, Life Itself coulda been something.
Life Itself is Recommended If You Like: This Is Us at its most emotionally manipulative
Grade: 2 out of 5 Unreliable Narrators