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
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.
The acting and writing were some of the best I have every seen.
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.