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Life Itself - Review

Life Itself

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 2.5 out of 5

DAN Fogelman’s Life Itself masquerades as a film that dares to tackle the unpredictable nature of life in a mature, honest way. And he’s assembled a top drawer cast to help him.

But what emerges is an emotionally manipulative, over-cooked drama that often feels self-satisfied to the point of irritation. It also feels contrived, with the unpredictability of the film’s early scenes belatedly replaced with artistic choices you can clearly see coming.

Consisting of five chapters, the film begins with the intense relationship between college sweethearts Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), as relayed by a broken down Will to his psychiatrist (Annette Bening) in the wake of Abby’s departure.

But while the audience is led to believe that Abby left of her own volition, the reality [and tragedy] of what happens eventually proves to be far more surprising, thereby setting up the thematic device of the unreliable narrator and the notion that life, itself, is perhaps the most unreliable narrator of all.

So far, so kind of intriguing, if borderline pretentious. The remaining chapters unfold in the wake of the film’s big tragedy as the various lives of other characters intersect despite their geographical differences. These include a punk chick (Olivia Cooke), an olive farmer (Antonio Banderas), his foreman and his wider family.

Fogel’s film seems to be striving for the same kind of emotional sweep and complexity of films like Crash and Babel but fails to make as lasting an impression largely because so much feels so forced.

His film was largely critically derided following its debut at the Toronto Film Festival for the way in which it wallowed in tragedy, while hammering home points about the power of love and hope. And it’s easy to see why.

Life Itself asks some big questions and is certainly ambitious, as well as belatedly hopeful. But it fails to answer most of them, while emerging as smug and overbearing in the process.

The tragedies that befall most characters are particularly dispiriting once the initial one has occurred, while several of the director’s touches (such as having Samuel L Jackson open the film as a version of himself, or characters revisit their own key scenes) feel gimmicky and take viewers out of the picture. It struggles to escape the feeling that this is a film at all times, rather than an observed slice of life.

As for the supposed big twist, Fogelman telegraphs it a little too early, thereby diminishing its overall effect.

It’s actually a shame because there is good work done by his cast and because Fogelman has proven in the past more than capable of delivering emotionally complex comedy-dramas, with Crazy Stupid Love being a career highlight. He also penned American TV’s runaway hit This Is Us.

As for his cast, Isaac, Wilde, Banderas, Mandy Laia Costa and Sergio Peris-Mencheta all register strongly, with one or two scenes holding together well enough.

But in the main, Life Itself is a little too pre-occupied with its own cleverness, a little too desperate to layer on the meaning and nowhere near as involving as it should have been. Worse, it also feels kind of false.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 113mins
UK Release Date: January 4, 2019.
Also available on Sky Box Office