Star-studded, multi-generational drama feels like a fraud
Writer-director Dan Fogelman created a sensation with his hit NBC melodrama This is Us this past season. Now Fogelman’s taking his effective storytelling gifts from the small screen to the big one with Life Itself, a film that features many traits that have made his TV show such a success. The multi-generational drama starring Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde has engaging, empathetic characters; a potent blend of humor and pathos; and a resonant underlying theme about the preciousness of life and the enduring power of love.
Life Itself tells the intertwined stories of two families over the course of several generations. Will and Abby (Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde), a young married couple in New York City, are facing parenthood when life deals them an unexpected blow. Meanwhile, across the ocean in a Spanish vineyard, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), Isabel (Laia Costa) and Saccione (Antonio Banderas) form an uncomfortable love triangle. The uniformly stellar cast also features Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Jean Smart, Annette Bening, and, briefly and memorably, Samuel L. Jackson.
Life Itself is not without its virtues. Fogelman certainly knows how to tell a story and especially how to create a dramatic moment. In particular, his use of flashbacks and juxtapositions of different time periods are creative and effective. I also liked that a solid chunk of this mainstream Hollywood feature was spoken in Spanish with subtitles.
Federico Jusid’s lyrical score does a terrific job of capturing the distinctive milieus of the American and Spanish settings, while also deftly incorporating Bob Dylan’s song, “Make You Feel My Love” (the recurring thematic anthem) into the fabric of the entire score. Similarly, Brett Pawlak’s cinematography creates vivid and contrasting moods.
So why did I find Life Itself so incredibly aggravating while others in the theater around me were quietly sobbing? Because, while this movie is quite moving at times and mostly well done, it is also so over the top, so determined to make its point, so manipulative of its audience that it never feels real. Life Itself is an imitation of life. It is, as I experienced it, a cheat.
Granted, all movies are manipulative. Filmmakers use every tool in their kit to lure the viewer to a certain endpoint. That, ultimately, is the storytelling craft. But the very best, the ones who transcend craftmanship and achieve artistry, are the ones who reveal their intentions gradually, subtly, leading you to their inevitable conclusion without your realizing that’s where you were heading from the outset. You are never aware of the man behind the curtain.
Unfortunately, Fogelman doesn’t seem to trust us. He has made a film that so obviously connects the dots for us that we don’t have to make an effort. Consequently, when I was finally led to the moral at the end of his story, I was not genuinely moved. In fact, I was more than a little perturbed. I would have been more satisfied with a movie that didn’t try so very hard to hit every point.
Also opening in October: Bradley Cooper directs and stars in the latest remake of A Star is Born, co-starring with Lady Gaga, Oct. 5; Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong in First Man, directed by La La Land’s Damien Chazelle, Oct. 12; The Hate U Give, a poignant drama that explores America’s racial divide, with Amandla Stenberg and Regina Hall, Oct. 19; and also Oct. 19, Jamie Lee Curtis revisits the horrors of Haddonfield 40 years later in Halloween.