Dan Fogelman’s wildly successful This is Us succeeds for the same reason Life Itself fails. His bag of thematic tricks, and the show’s brand of earnest, honest, but cloying sentimentality and greeting card schmaltz translates better to the small screen than the big, it would seem. It’s a shame because this is a large-scale film with an ambitious story structure and a long list of very talented performers, but rarely a moment of it rings true. It’s a movie that really wants to make you cry. It doesn’t.
The film follows multiple couples over multiple generations. Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde,) as a young couple in Manhattan, and a subplot with Antonio Banderas, who owns an olive orchard in Spain, and other characters played by Olivia Cooke and Annette Bening, and Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart, and how all of these people intertwine and how they’re all connected to each other.
Thematically, Life Itself aims to discuss the big moments in life – births, deaths, marriages, divorces, reassuring moments and moments when life falls apart. But it does everything in such a trite, convoluted, pat way. I’d say for about 10-15 minutes in the middle of this two-hour long film, it’s emotionally gripping storytelling. If it could have stayed there and not ventured off into the syrupy Hallmark card nonsense it started off with, maybe this would have been a more memorable film.
As it is, Life Itself is a disaster. It’s one of those scripts that have these characters talking to each other the way people never speak to each other. Writers talk about writing in a way that is unmistakably self-indulgent and hokey. Olivia Wilde’s character, as a college student, is writing her thesis about the idea of the unreliable narrator, and that “life itself is the only true narrator.” Eye roll. Multiple characters in this film lecture others at length about how Bob Dylan is a modern-day Yeats. Eye roll, eye roll.
The one thing that I initially didn’t like about This is Us, is that over the course of that series’ pilot, it establishes unearned familiarity with these characters that we haven’t known very long, and expects the viewer to have formed attachments to them already. It has these big, grandiose, emotionally charged moments in a pilot episode when we basically just met these characters. Life Itself plays around with time jumps in an infuriating way. Even though every scene looks modern day, it can’t possibly be. When something like this takes me out of the story and has me constantly questioning what year it is, that’s not good. But as a result of this admittedly ambitious story structure, we don’t spend a lot of time with any character here. Since people are connected to other people, Fogelman attempts to coast on implied familiarity, but it doesn’t really work. Every character has a backstory, everything ties into something else, but never does an emotional beat feel authentic or true.
Life Itself misses the mark. Fogelman has proved that he can make a good film that hits emotional beats right. Crazy, Stupid, Love and Danny Collins do everything right that Life Itself does wrong. The more it tries to say about the big moments in life that define us, the less it actually does. It has a few good moments, and like I said, there are about ten great minutes in the middle that feel like they’re out of a much better movie. But, overall, I can’t find any way to possibly recommend this film.