Life Itself (2018)
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I have incredibly mixed feelings on this movie.
On one hand, ya, I see why it has a less the 15% score on rotten tomatoes. No spoilers, but there's a major plot point near the end that you really need to suspend belief in reality to believe, within a movie that is so incredibly grounded in its graphic portrayal of reality, both mundane and intense. Additionally, it's pretty sappy, and essentially a 2 hour version of This is Us.
On the other hand, I've been buying up all available stock in Oscar Isaac ever since Inside Llewin Davis, and in Olivia Cooke ever since Thoroughbreds, and this movie only cements them as my first round picks if there were ever a fantasy football style league for actors. And also this: this movie did to me what really all movies are aiming to do. It gripped me intensely for two hours, it made me feel deeply, and here I am 6 hours later, still thinking about it. So really what else matters. Sometimes I get caught up in making sure my opinion of a movie lives up to what I think a movie should critically be without looking at what the movie actually is. I refuse to do that with this movie. I liked it and the people in it. Screw the rest. 9/10
A lot of people viewing this movie talk about the situations pulling at their heartstrings, and finding themselves crying a lot. I'm one of those guys who cries at just about everything. There are TV commercials I've seen 3 dozen times, and I cry every time I see them. I think this film made one of my eyes well up a bit, once, and that was it. The characters are so contrived and overly emotional, that I just couldn't buy in. Did not have a single tear roll down my cheek. In some cases, I actually laughed out loud, at moments that were supposed to be tragic, as the situations were just too ridiculous.
It is not the worst movie of the year, but it won't win any Oscars, either. There are movies that you just know you won't watch again, no matter how bored you are. This is one of those. Thankfully, I didn't have to pay for tickets, or I would have been angry. I took my wife, thinking she might like it, but she found it too depressing. If it had had a few more uplifting moments, she may have been ok with it.
Ignore the critics. They say things like "It's just like X," or "He borrowed this from Y," or "It's too unrealistic." Nonsense. Who cares?
If you are looking for an engrossing story, this is it. The four-segment format is great, because it keeps you wondering "What has this segment got to do with what the previous segment was about?" And you quickly find out. But you never know where it's going--the end is unpredictable, but thoroughly possible.
Granted, there are those who have never run into a coincidence in their lives. I feel sorry for those people. I know in my own life I have been surrounded by coincidences: at a recent conference I idly began chatting to a guy in front of me. We had shared the same thesis advisor! When I lived in Saudi Arabia, who moved in next door? A junior h.s. classmate of my wife's--he had moved away in junior high and she had not heard anything about him until 25 years later he popped up 10,000 miles away as her next door neighbor. Every time we go to Europe we bump into people we know. Coincidences--even extremely improbable ones--are part of life. If you accept this, this is the movie for you.
Great performances by a variety of actors. And the end....everyone in the theater was sniffling, and it wasn't because they had colds. It touched each and every one of us, and in the end, isn't that what a movie should do? I think so.
It's highly likely that this film will fall into the love it or hate it category. It's a sure bet that many critics will bash it as pretentious and overly melodramatic. It will be labeled a manipulative tear-jerker with outlandish coincidences. I won't debate the merits of that criticism, and instead will remind all that creative fictional storytelling can often seem fantastical and improbable, but that doesn't mean it can't also be entertaining, thought-provoking, and carry a worthwhile message.
Because of the overlapping and intertwining stories, characters and timelines, filmmaker Fogelman breaks the film into 5 chapters. This should allow most viewers to keep track. Chapter 1 is entitled "The Hero" and features Samuel L Jackson as the unreliable narrator - a recurring theme throughout. It's also in this chapter that we meet Will and Abby. Will (Oscar Isaac) is an emotionally unstable man who has been in a mental institute for the 6 months since his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) left him. He is despondent and attending required sessions with a therapist played by Annette Bening, and we get cutesy flashbacks to the Will and Abby courtship. See, Abby and Will are the kind of couple who see themselves as Tarantino characters, argue about the merits of Bob Dylan (poet or Chewbacca noises?), and come up with the worst dog name in cinematic history.
Chapter 2 is where we meet Dylan Dempster, daughter of Will and Abby, and granddaughter of Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart. She is named after the poet songwriter, not the Star Wars character. There is a cool effect that evolves Dylan's face from a child surrounded by death and tragedy to a just-turned-21 year old played by Olivia Cooke (THOROUGHBREDS), who also happens to front an atrocious punk rock band and flashes quite the temper. Chapter 3 shifts from New York City to Carmona, Spain where we are introduced to "The Gonzalez Family" of Javier (an outstanding Sergio Peris-Mencheta), his wife Isabel (another excellent performance from Laia Costa, VICTORIA), and Javier's boss Saccione (Antonio Banderas). Javier works Saccione's olive orchard, as he and Isabel start a family. Chapter 4 focuses on their son Rodrigo (Alex Monner) as he grows into a talented young man while his beloved mother suffers with a debilitating disease. Finally, in Chapter 5 we meet Elena Dempsey-Gonzalez (Lorenza Izzo) and the story comes full circle ... or all the dots are connected. Even the identity of the narrator who took Samuel L Jackson's place after Chapter 1 is revealed.
Filmmaker Fogelman seems to be better suited as a writer (CRAZY STUPID LOVE) than as a director (DANNY COLLINS), and his script here is extraordinary in its ambition. While there may be some developments that seem contrived, there are also some terrific moments throughout. We see a cross-continent ripple effect that makes this the CRASH of family dramas (the 2004 movie, not the one from 1996). Who is a hero and who is a villain is one of the key elements here, but Fogelman seems intent on making the point that traumatic events and tragedy shape who we are as people. The message is that our ability to bounce back - to "stand up" after being knocked down, is really what defines the human experience. For those who keep an open mind, the emotional jolts provided here will likely resonate.
BUT it was such a needlessly depressing movie. We never got beyond the surface of the tragic vignettes, so I didn't feel connected to the characters (okay, maybe one). A good editor could have saved this movie. I'm such a sap, but I never felt a tear or lump in my throat.
If you must watch it to see for yourself, go to the cheap showing.
It has one of the most baffling opening scenes I've ever seen in a theater. I won't spoil it, you just have to see it for yourself.
Also, there are just odd storytelling ideas. From a "Ghost of Oscar Issac's past" to multiple Olivia Wildes having a snowball fight to Olivia Cooke going through CGI Puberty to Antonio Banderas talking about his father for a full 10 minute scene that is painfully boring. It is a mess, but quite a fascinating one that I honestly think people need to see to believe.
It's produced by Amazon, so if you have Prime then you'll probably be able to watch it in 3-4 months on Prime Video. So while I think it's a mess that people should watch, it should not be watched in a theater.
The plot of the movie is a spoiler in itself, so I'll refrain from going too deep here. Life Itself follows a couple who met each other at a young age but are no longer together. Their love story sets the rest of the film in motion, making for an experience that just wants to connect people through time. This film tries very hard to pull at your heartstrings and it almost deals with death a little too often. Death is far too present throughout the course of this film, making for a very sober experience. Life Itself isn't afraid to go all out when trying to make something sappy feel authentic and raw, but I don't think it always accomplishes its goal.
Life Itself has a cast that deserved to be in a far better film. From Oscar Isaac to Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas to Annette Benning, and even the little screen time that performers like Olivia Cooke receive are all stellar from beginning to end. Tears will be shed by many, due to the sheer notion that these actors and actresses make this screenplay much better than it truly is. The screenplay itself is fine if it had been written as a short film, which leads me to my next point.
The story for this film is actually quite good and may have been incredible if it had been told as a short film with not much dialogue or a ten-episode television show that fleshes out everything that felt too brief. We are given barely enough time with each character to truly care about where this story ends up throughout the final act, so I found myself latching onto early moments in the movie that had me genuinely shocked. The first act of this movie boasts a fantastic sequence involving Oscar Isaac's character in Will. I was hoping that the effectiveness that these specific moments brought to the movie would continue on, but they sort of fell by the wayside, in favour of linking storylines for the sake of an emotional twist.
This is a film that's broken up into segments that may or may not eventually link together and audiences are asked to go along with many new stories, in hopes that it means something later in the film. I enjoyed each segment of the film for the most part, but the surprises just felt forced, in my opinion. Everything felt too convenient and obvious when certain elements came into play by the conclusion, but it's done in such a way that will most likely have some people weeping. I did find myself tearing up on a few occasions, but only due to either a performance or how a specific connection was made. It's well done, but not as a feature film. That may seem like a cop-out explanation, but I definitely feel that this film would've been so much better as something else.
In the end, Life Itself does benefit from solid direction by Dan Fogleman. He was able to ring out some terrific performances here and piece this movie together in a way that may be clever to some viewers, but it really didn't work for me. This is the type of film that probably won't be received well by critics, due to the overall execution of it, but I can see audiences getting wrapped up in the emotional core of the movie as a whole. I fell somewhere in the middle of those two, feeling underwhelmed by the execution, but impressed at the effort made in attempting something different. I can't personally recommend this movie as a great film, but if you enjoy a bit of sap and a good cry, you may find some enjoyment out of Life Itself.