“Life brings you to your knees.”
What are we to do when we experience a tragic, untimely, shattering loss of love? How do we fill the empty void, mend the broken heart, make sense of the senseless? Life Itself doesn’t have an exact answer to such heady questions, nor should it. Instead the movie – an up and down affair that’s as rocky as the rollercoaster of existence – allows individuals to be their own vessels, submitting themselves over to or conquering the emotional weight of grief. Life Itself might be the most contrived movie I’ve seen so far this year, but it also passionately tries to express one of life’s most ineffable truths, which is that we’re all in this mysterious endeavor together.
Life Itself unfolds in a series of chapters, beginning with Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac) as he smothers his Abby (Olivia Wilde) with affection. They are each other’s person, soulmates lucky enough to find their single match among the billions on Earth. She adores Bob Dylan, he’s a fan of Hoobastank, they share a dog literally named “Fuckface.” As the sporadic edits cut back and forth, we see Will’s fallen off the deep end, openly popping Xanax and pouring mini whiskey bottles into his large double espresso right at the coffee shop counter, drunkenly begging the morning crowd to give Dylan another shot as he downs multiple of his own. It is, if I’m being frank, the most horrendous 10-15 minutes I’ve sat through in 2018. I understand why there have been reports of moviegoers walking out early; the beginning is careless, practically unintelligible. Things go up from there, though.
Recently released from a mental institution, Will attends therapy with Dr. Cait Morris (Annette Bening). He finally opens up about what went wrong with Abby. Through memories – and eventually through the story’s uncanny ability to press forward in time – we see Abby pregnant and bursting at the belly, their soon to be family enjoying a day with his parents Irwin (Mandy Patinkin) and Linda (Jean Smart). Life Itself has moments that will shock, scenes that will frustrate, and is about as maudlin as feature films come. Instead of the “applause” cues often lit up for audiences attending a live show, the movie might as well have redone the theater’s EXIT signs to say CRY, forcing emotion instead of communicating it. Yet there’s something to be said for the insistence. Like a grandma scooping heaves and mounds of the food she labored over right onto your plate, Life Itself simply does too much and gives us more than we can possibly consume. I for one would rather eat until I’m full and take a Tupperware container home than go hungry.
Life Itself only grows stronger the farther along it goes, substituting the cheap, ugly narrative clichés of the abominable first act, holding onto and maturing its most honest parts. There’s Dylan Dempsey (Olivia Cooke), daughter of the aforementioned couple, trying to make sense of her tragic past. Then there’s Javier Gonzalez (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a working hand on Vincent Saccione’s (Antonio Banderas) Andalusian olive fields. Javier marries Isabel (Laia Costa), they raise their son Rodrigo (Àlex Monner plays the eldest version), and inner conflict creates unwanted drama. Life Itself throws everything in but the kitchen sink, and it’s unsurprising that while many pieces are strong, others are unremarkably bland. Each chapter – save for the open – works well on its own terms but becomes a little too tangled up in the picture’s obsession with connectivity, double-knotting and pulling tightly at the heartstrings of a sad orchestral piece.
Despite its errant ways and its proclivity for the melancholy, there’s something so organic and raw about the flaws of Life Itself. It begins inept, confused, incapable of understanding complex emotions. Then the movie grows up a little, still reckless and angry at the universe, yet also expressive. And then it gets older, wiser, more friendly with the inevitable passage of time. Dan Fogelman – famous for This Is Us – hasn’t made a great movie or one that’s very cinematic; so much of this is soap opera theatrics condensed into a feature length film. However, he gets great performances from his cast, and they in turn reward the filmmaker by honing in on the story’s crystal-clear intent. Life Itself wants to assure us that life, itself, is cyclical. That we are the products of those who came before us. That we attach a tiny piece of ourselves into the souls of others after we leave this Earth. And as the film asserts, nailing its thematic messaging over the head with one swift strike, life is no more a reliable, factual narrator than you or me. But that doesn’t mean the stories aren’t worth telling and passing down, because only then can those who’ve come and gone invade the present and guide the future. Life Itself’s fortitude and spirit overcomes its problems to tell a multi-generational tale that’s worth listening to.
“Sometimes it scares me how much you feel.”
Rating: 3 out of 5