If you frequently read my reviews then you will know I’m a sucker for a good melodrama, one that plays with your emotions but also constructs compelling characters you can find engaging. Dan Fogelman is known for creating such characters on the small screen in his hit TV show This is Us, a relationship drama set across generations showing us how our lives are intrinsically linked through time. Life Itself also plays with the idea of generational storytelling, something Fogelman should be well versed at by this point. Turns out, he isn’t.
Telling the story of married couple Will (Oscar Issac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde) and how their relationship echoes across decades to influence people they didn’t even know existed. Following them from their college years to the birth of their first child, Life Itself is supposed to be the a story about the undeniable power of love through the ages.
Emotionally manipulative from the very start, Fogelman, as both writer and director here is pushing the boundaries of taste with an opening that is supposed to come off as unique, risqué and most of all special. What it actually feels like is directionless, instead of letting his story start naturally, he twists the narrative, playing with his audience right off the bat. The only real power this false start really has is to make you question if anyone here really matters.
I’d like to write here that the film saves itself through its characters, despite a scattershot plot that never quite knows where it is going, like a sentence you start with no clue of the ending. I’d like to write that. The problem is nobody in Life Itself has a clue what life is like. Will and Abby never for one second come across as human, as real people who might populate the real world. In fact for a writer compelled to tell human stories, Fogelman clings to stereotypes like they are going out of fashion.
From the offensive mother in law to the damaged but soulful musician, look and you will find your favourite movie tropes given life. It wouldn’t be a problem if these characters stuck to their roles. However the stunted script here demands each of these characters be larger than and convey everything with historical relevance, almost as if they are on their death beds conveying their final wishes to loved ones. Every sentence is loaded with the possibility of death right around the corner even though these characters don’t know that.
Broken up into five chapters, each with their own ‘hero’, this is really just one story but the disjointed nature with which it is conveyed and the breakneck pace we get our tale leaves you with whiplash. People talk but never really say anything with faux philosophy passed off as real sentiment. In fact one characters extended monologue about the unreliable narrator is a speech by Fogelman, not for the story’s sake but the audience’s, a plea that we bear with him as he gets to the point, even if he isn’t quite sure what it is.
Broken up, jumping from decade to decade, with a 2nd act that messes with the overall tone of the film, Life Itself is trying to be poetry, a tale for the ages that uses narrative tricks like tic tacs, hoping the more dynamic the story the less you might notice the flaws. What could have been very different if the film wasn’t so intent on trying so very hard to be different, this bloated picture leaves you with unpleasant afterthoughts as even the ‘triumphant’ ending you are given caved in on itself given enough thought on the matter. A narrative nightmare you just want to end, luckily it does.