It’s always a good rule of thumb to enter any movie with as few expectations as possible. Give the film its day in court, so to speak. But it’s hard to ignore the odor of pretension wafting off of a film that’s titled, ever so boldly, Life Itself, a film which happens to be even more pretentious than one would guess. It’s a generational family drama that unfolds something like a mystery, except the big reveal at the end isn’t at all worth the long, arduous, patience-testing journey one must endure to get there.
More critically, the central theme (which, annoyingly, is a spoiler) is driven home so incessantly and heavy-handedly that it’ll resonate only with those susceptible to the cheesiest storytelling devices. For example, a character says the title of the movie and the actor is struggling because the line is so corny she might as well be looking directly into the camera while saying it. Yes, this actually happens in Life Itself, and there are several such painful moments but that’s not to say the film has nothing going for it. While the writing is insufferable at times, the actors’ performances are mostly quite good.
The story is split into a handful of chapters, the first of which centers on Will (Oscar Isaac), a depressed, woefully damaged screenwriter who’s lost the love of his life, Abby (Olivia Wilde). The story recounts their relationship by jumping back and forth in time, highlighting key moments in their lives while Will struggles to recall exactly why Abby left him. Isaac and Wilde actually do a fine job of building a foundation of emotional investment, and while the secret to their relationship’s demise is absolutely vomit-inducing when it’s revealed, the actors (including Annette Bening, who plays Will’s therapist) manage to make their characters come across as believable.
In addition to solid performances, the plot is surprisingly unpredictable, which is both a blessing and a curse in this case. Early on, when we proceed to chapter two in which we follow Will and Abby’s brooding punk-rocker daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke), the original protags fall completely out of view, which gives the film an intriguing anthology vibe while maintaining forward momentum via the family bloodline. The next chapters focus on a family from Spain, who at first seem to have no relation to the original characters but are later revealed to be intimately interconnected. There are a handful of poignant moments in each chapter, but what’s problematic here is that by the time we’ve spent about 45-minutes in Spain with the second family, it’s difficult to care about what’s going on because it’s not made clear why their stories are relevant to the first family’s.
This is a shame, mostly because some of the scenes in Spain are terrific. We first meet hard-working olive farmer Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta, a standout) and his insanely rich boss, Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas), who regales him with the unlikely story of how he came into his life of fortune. This scene is magnificent, with razor-sharp dialogue that clearly defines both characters and sets up the rest of the tale beautifully (it’s probably the best thing Banderas has done in years). But as we meet the rest of the characters — Javier’s wife, Isabel (Laia Costa) and their son, Rodrigo (Alex Monner) — the film yet again devolves into melodrama, with the realism of the performances completely dismantled by the clumsy, wannabe-poetic script.
There are several themes operating throughout, like the nature of unreliable narrators in stories and viewing lineage as a sort of gruesome baton race. Some of these ideas have the potential to be fascinating, but writer-director Dan Fogelman ( This is Us) beats us over the head with them so bluntly and barbarically that it borders on condescension. These are not difficult concepts to grasp, but Fogelman seems to think we won’t get the gist unless his characters literally recite the moral of the story over and over until our ears bleed. In a story already brimming with tragedy and death (some scenes are incredibly hard to watch due, surprisingly, to horrific acts of violence), the saccharine messaging that’s meant to counterbalance all of the misery is so syrupy and suffocating that the whole ordeal becomes manipulative and exhausting to watch.
Life can be disappointing, life can be annoying, and in the darkest times, life can feel like a waste. Life itself captures all of this in the worst way possible, offering no respite. It’s sad to see a terrific cast so woefully underserved, and it’s baffling to watch such a talented storyteller (This Is Us is wonderful) churn out such a mess of a movie.