LIFE ITSELF is a Beautiful-Looking Downer

I’m sure it’ll be SOMEBODY’S favorite movie

For some reason, a majority of critics tend to regard the early period of the fall movie season as a wasteland that’s only a notch or two higher on the quality scale than that the dead days of February. I personally like when autumn hits the movies. This time of year serves as the bridge between the loud explosiveness of the summer and the hype-driven awards season. In between these two times of the movie year are the weeks of September and early October in which good quality films; hidden gems without any sort of pretension or ulterior motives, are allowed to breathe and flourish as they showcase some unique cinematic voices. Regardless of whatever the year may have been like thus far, the fall movie season is always guaranteed to bring out some undisputed gems. Life Itself just isn’t one of them.

Written and directed by This is Us creator Dan Fogelman, Life Itself is a multicultural, multigenerational drama in which a collection of characters, including a depressed screenwriter (Oscar Isaac), a caring psychiatrist (Annette Bening), an enchanting grad student (Olivia Wilde), a wealthy landowner (Antonio Banderas), an angry punk rocker (Olivia Cooke), a crotchety old man (Mandy Patinkin) and a Spanish housewife (Laia Costa) all try to navigate themselves and their loved ones through the unpredictable surprises of life.

Life Itself is such a textbook example of an artist so very clearly biting off more than he can chew. It’s beautiful when you think of what Fogelman was trying to do here; namely to show the interconnectedness of life and how it, as the Bard would say: “makes fools of us all.” Yet virtually every move here struggles to find a balance between being beautiful in its simplicity and over-the-top in its dramatic punch. It’s hard to determine what the biggest concrete problem is with Life Itself. For starters, its characters are so haphazardly written, with many of them suffering from problems they’ve been assigned rather than organically developed. It’s hard to say this, but the ones with problems are actually the lucky ones. At least they’ve found reasons to exist. The same can’t be said for others, including Bening’s psychiatrist, who are literally just there to get another character to explain what is happening at this point in the movie. As for the movie itself, its plotting proves to be a bigger downfall than the people in Fogelman’s world. The architecture of this movie is so sloppily constructed, spending long stretches of time in certain worlds and eras, with only brief interludes in others. If the idea is that everyone’s story matters, everyone’s story has a point, why does Life Itself shortchange those who clearly have SOME purpose for being on the screen?

The sheer tragedy of Life Itself is that it’s incredibly apparent (despite its never ending series of flaws) that this is a movie made by someone who truly cares about character dynamics and the power of scenes. Watching as Isaac takes Bening on a journey through his past has a Capra-esque feel to it, while Fogelman’s gift for dialogue does manage to come up for air in spite of being drowned out by the heavy (and often depressing) plot turns. “Life has a way of bringing us down to our knees, lower than we ever thought we could be,” Costa states at one point. “But then we find the strength to get up and go farther than we ever thought we could go.” Finally, even though the concept was far stronger than the end result, Fogelman’s notion of exploring life as the ultimate unreliable narrator is somewhat admirable. “What if we’re just day players in someone else’s movie,” Wilde asks at one point. The idea is such an incredibly intriguing one and calls to mind the works of the great Paul Auster and the postmodern idea of life being a series of events; arranged and predestined without our knowledge or participation. His organic, unassuming and experimental approach to tell stories is that reason Auster has been able to craft novels centered around themes of chance, fate and their relation to the overall human experience. Fogelman, with his penchant for meet/cutes, shameless sentimentality and left field plot twists, hasn’t; at least not yet.

It’s sad to see such good actors trapped by such stifling material and utterly heartbreaking to see them give their all to it. Yet if Life Itself comes off as even just a little bit remotely watchable, it’s because of the people inhabiting the characters on the screen. Isaac once again shows how he’s one of the most versatile actors around, while Wilde enters a new level of luminous. Bening borders on the ethereal, even if her character is so thinly written, that the result is an actress who has never been more inconsequential to a movie bearing her own name. Still, Costa makes her scenes work, as does Pantinkin and Banderas in a near career-best turn.

A lot of critics have been ruthless in their reviews of Life Itself to the point where it’s writer/director took the time to express his disappointment with the way his movie is being received. After seeing the movie, I can see how the majority of complaints are more or less valid. Still, I wouldn’t be so quick to write Fogelman off with this unfortunate misfire. The man clearly knows how to imprint his stories into the hearts of the public as the reception to the runaway success of This is Us indicates, while the warm reception to most of his feature screenplays, especially the very clever Crazy Stupid Love, has been earned. His first time out in the director’s chair with the enchanting and poignant Danny Collins signaled the arrival of a kind of filmmaking voice which occupies its own special timeless place in the ever-changing movie landscape. It’s THAT Fogelman I have faith in and whom I can’t wait to see come into his own as a filmmaker, which I’m more than confident he will.

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