Film Review: Life Itself

One man’s family tree gets a sound shaking in 'Life Itself.' By any other name, this is (or would like to be) “This Is Us, Too”—ballooned to big-screen size and sprawled out over a couple of continents and many decades. Bad move, this.
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No truth to the rumor that Life Itself had the working title of Death Itself until the marketing people got ahold of it, but it does rack up quite a body count for a home-front sudser, illustrating the premise that “life is the ultimate unreliable narrator” (i.e., we’re governed by chance and the chances we arbitrarily take along the way).

Anguished cases-in-point litter this film—the consequence of cancer, car crashes and suicide. Some characters just crossing the street are smacked out of existence with the same stinging swiftness that brutally befell Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black.

So, should there not be enough travail or unhappiness in your life, this dud’s for you.

It’s also for the die-hard fans of NBC-TV’s “This Is Us,” which just set sail on another ocean of tears for season three. Dan Fogelman, the creator and chief tearjerker of that series, brought the old-fashioned weeper back into vogue, wising it up and sprucing it up for contemporary consumption, winning raves and ratings alike. That miracle-working was apparently enough for Amazon to green-light his second feature, utilizing some of his newly minted, crowd-pleasing tricks from television.

Talk about magnifying flaws! His string-pulling looks like cable-pulling on a movie screen, and the mother lode of misery and misfortune he unloads in 118 minutes is pretty heavy lifting as feature fare. It plays better in small-screen, weekly doses.

The good news is the bad news: He hired a quality cast to play roadkill and worse. Oscar Isaac leads off this two-continent, three-generation, five-chapter family clambake. If you saw his failed and flailing folksinger Llewyn Davis, you know what to expect here from his failed and flailing screenwriter. Then again, you might not: Fogelman uses that character’s profession to get his film off to a failed and flailing start with a completely pointless incident involving Annette Bening (wasted as his psychiatrist) and Samuel L. Jackson (apparently just a passerby who happens by with some fleeting narration and introductory notes, then drops out of the picture).

Chapter two in the film is consumed by Olivia Wilde, the girlfriend Isaac meets in college and impregnates. Her patch of bad road is positively Dickensian (orphaned at seven, entrusted to Uncle Molester, et cetera). Wilde’s child, Olivia Cooke, is the centerpiece of the third tale of woe, played against a punk-rock backdrop. Mandy Patinkin and the ever-stylish Jean Smart get in licks here as grandparents.

For episode four (and that word is used advisedly), the movie switches to subtitles and moves from the CBGB grit of Manhattan to the serenity of Spain’s olive groves. Antonio Banderas, with gravitas to spare, lords over the vineyards and forms a triangle with the wife of his trusted foreman (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). She is played by a Spanish Sarah Silverman of sorts named Laia Costa. Indeed, the scenery and the acting in this story are on a discernibly higher plane than what’s in the rest of the film.

Alex Monner, the issue of this segment, pinballs back to New York City for the film’s final stop, shops around romantically and completes this by-now-premeditated cycle, wrapping the whole shebang up in one big, beautiful, unbelievable bow.

Bob Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind album underscores all of the above—“Make You Feel My Love” is incessantly done to death—but nobody remembered to bring the time machine. Generations are jumped, and still the whole movie looks new-millennium-made.

Ah, kismet! Where is thy uncalculated kick? You leave the theatre wondering.