Producer: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Aaron Ryder and Dan Fogelman
Director: Dan Fogelman
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Anette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Lorenzas Izzo, Isabel Durant and Samuel L. Jackson
Studio: Amazon Studios
The second film to bear the title “Life Itself” in recent years is definitely the lesser of the two. The first was Steve James’s documentary about the later years of Roger Ebert, who soldiered on after losing his lower jaw as the result of surgery. It was powerful stuff. The latest is a pretentious, sappy drama of interlinking stories from Dan Fogelman, who has struck a chord with a wide television audience with his nighttime NBC soap opera “This Is Us,” and here tries to pull off a similar trick on the big screen. He fails miserably, the big life lessons he doles out having about the same level of meaning as the Deep Thoughts Jack Handey used to deliver on “Saturday Night Live.”
The picture opens with an infuriating start-and-stop Manhattan-set prologue, in which Samuel L. Jackson, in a ranting voiceover, introduces bearded street guy Will (Oscar Isaac) making a pest of himself in a coffee shop by serenading the customers with a boisterous rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” (later explained as a love song in an album drenched in despair). But in another bit, we see a happier, beardless Will and psychologist Dr. Morris (Annette Bening), whom, it turns out, his grubbier self is seeing to deal with the absence of his beloved wife Abby (Olivia Wilde).
Finally the on-and-off prologue is revealed as the hapless attempt of forlorn Will to begin a script—a therapeutic exercise, perhaps?—and Jackson disappears screaming about unreliable narrators, to be replaced by an unseen female one whose identity will be revealed only much later on. We begin the official Chapter 1 in Fogelman’s portentous presentation, about the romance and marriage of happy Will and effervescent Abby, an English lit grad student who is writing a thesis about—you guessed it—unreliable narration, of which she argues life itself is the greatest offender (by which she simply means that things happen unexpectedly). They soon have a baby on the way, with Will’s parents Irwin and Linda (Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart) overjoyed at the prospect (Abbey’s folks are conveniently dead).
The melodramatic denouement of that segments will take us to Chapter 2, in which we’re introduced to Dylan (Olivia Cooke, with that most meaningful of names), who is celebrating (or not) her twenty-first birthday, having been raised by her grandfather. She’s a punkish, gloomy sort who argues with everybody, including the old man who clearly dotes on her.
Chapter 3 shifts to Andalusia, where the rich owner of an olive grove named Vincent Saccione (Antonio Banderas) gets involved in the domestic affairs of Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), the honest, upright worker he promotes to foreman after telling him, in a long, laborious monologue, about his family history. Javier has married the lovely Isabelle (Laia Costa), and the two have a son Rodrigo (Adrian Marrero), in whom Vincent takes such an interest that it eventually causes Javier to take a decision that is frankly nonsensical—but not before he’s fulfilled the boy’s dream of visiting New York, with unfortunate consequences.
Chapter 4 shows us the grown Rodrigo (Àlex Monner) dealing with Bella’s devastating illness while going off to New York for college. There he has a brief but exuberant romance with a ditzy blonde named Shari (Isabel Durant) before breaking up with her after she plays a thoroughly grotesque joke on him, and as he walks the street afterward he comes upon a girl crying on bench. Who she is, you can probably predict. That’s followed by Chapter 5, in which we learn who the omniscient female narrator has been, and why we should care.
“Life Itself” features lot of fine actors, none of them at their best (though Banderas, oozing quiet sadness, comes closest), and an able crew, including cinematographer Brett Pawlak, who seems to have been especially happy doing the sequences in Spain, the landscapes in which he drenches in a halo of sunlight. But production designer Gerald Sullivan and costumer Melissa Toth aren’t terribly successful in using visual detail to suggest chronological change (Patinkin ages credibly, but Costa really doesn’t, even in her last scenes), and editor Julie Monroe struggles to keep Fogelman’s complex structure clear. It’s his fault, not theirs, that the elaborate cinematic house of cards winds up feeling dramatically shaky.
In the end, “Life Itself” will have its intended tear-jerking effect only on viewers who remain convinced that Forrest Gump’s observation about chocolates is an earth-shaking profundity.