Director: Dan Fogelman
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Oscar Isaac, Laia Costa, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin
Runtime: 1 hr 58 mins
Rating: NC16 (Coarse Language And Some Violence)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 6 December 2018
Synopsis: As a young New York couple goes from college romance to marriage and the birth of their first child, the unexpected twists of their journey create reverberations that echo over continents and through lifetimes in LIFE ITSELF. Director and writer Dan Fogelman (“This Is Us”) examines the perils and rewards of everyday life in a multigenerational saga featuring an international ensemble including Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris- Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner and Mandy Patinkin. Set in New York City and Carmona, Spain, LIFE ITSELF celebrates the human condition and all of its complications with humor, poignancy and love.
‘Life Itself’ is probably one of the worst-reviewed Hollywood films this year, but contrary to what you may fear, this multi-generational ensemble drama isn’t at all that awful; in fact, as much as we agree that it is flawed, writer-director Dan Fogelman’s sophomore film is a lot more poignant than we were expecting it to be.
Like his hit NBC TV series ‘This Is Us’, Fogelman interweaves separate but connected stories about family that are laced with a generous dose of sentimentality and coincidence. Structured as five chapters of different lengths, the twisty, tangled narrative which intertwines the fates of two sprawling families are built around his usual themes of loss, coping and love.
Each chapter is named after its central character(s), and the first titled ‘The Hero’ sees Fogelman stumbling out of the gate. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, it spends a good 10 minutes trying to show off how it can pull a rug from right under your feet – one minute we think the story might be about the handsome gay man sitting across from his therapist Dr Cait Morris (Annette Bening); yet another, we are left horrified as Dr Morris is hit by a bus right after saying hi to Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac), who says he is her fan; and then another, we see a much more dishevelled Will making a public nuisance of himself while ordering coffee at a café.
You’ll probably figure out later on that it is all part of Fogelman’s conceit that perhaps life itself is the most unreliable narrator, but the entire device itself is in fact unnecessary and superfluous. Still, by the end of the first chapter, you’ll have acquainted yourself with Will and his late wife Abby (Olivia Wilde), a pair of ‘Pulp Fiction’-loving college sweethearts whose relationship comprised an impromptu marriage proposal at a Halloween party where they were dressed as Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace, arguing about Bob Dylan in bed, a sweet little dog named Fuckface, and a baby on the way before tragedy strikes one of them.
It isn’t hard to guess just what happened to Abby that left Will so distraught that he ended up spending months at a mental institution before landing in Dr Morris’ office, but you’ll probably not be prepared by what happens at the end of the chapter, which unfortunates just reiterates how misbegotten it is. Thankfully, things pick up from there, with the second chapter titled ‘Dylan Dempsey’ devoted to Will and Abby’s daughter in her teenage years. Not surprisingly for someone whose life is marked by tragedy from the very start, Dylan grows up into a brooding young woman with plenty of pent-up angst that she expresses in her punk-rock music.
Chapters three and four follow the fates of the Spanish couple Javier Gonzalez (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and his wife Isabel Diaz (Laia Costa), as well as that of their son Rodrigo (Adrian Marrero). Javier and Isabel’s story is essentially a love triangle which involves the wealthy Mr Vincent Saccione (Antonio Banderas), who is the owner of the olive grove where Javier works as foreman. At some point, the paths of Javier, Isabel and Rodrigo will intersect with that of Will, Abby and Dylan, and just as it does for Dylan, that pivotal moment will also have repercussions on Rodrigo’s teenage life. Without giving away too much, let’s just say Rodrigo will visit New York City twice – once when he is just a boy on holiday, and another when he is a teenage student.
To say anything about the brief concluding chapter that definitively ties the Dempseys and the Gonzalezs by no less than (yes, we had to say it) life itself would be giving away too much, but as shamelessly manipulative as it is, the ending is both elegiac and elegant at the same time. If the portrayals in the earlier chapters seem contrived, the finale that reflects on everything past makes it clear that tragedy can indeed happen in life when you least expect it, change the course of life for all those involved, but somehow still bring opportunities for hope, love and peace if we allow or choose it for ourselves.
Oh yes, Fogelman could certainly have approached his own material with a lot more subtlety and nuance, but it is undeniable that the motivation comes from a heartfelt place (he was inspired by the sudden death of his mother to write this movie). Though overused, Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’ is ultimately an inspired addition to the movie, perfectly capturing the mood and melancholy that pervades all five chapters. Needless to say, the performances here are all excellent, and that itself has been acknowledged by even critics of the film. Like we said, you’ll know Fogelman was pulling the strings all along, but that doesn’t mean you won’t still be moved to tears by an earnest climax that reminds you of how much and what of life itself you may actually be in control of.
(It's manipulative, messy and unsubtle all right, but 'Life Itself' still manages to paint a resonant, poignant and heartfelt message about the unpredictabilities of life itself)
Review by Gabriel Chong