Dir: Dan Fogelman
Starring Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Laia Costa, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Samuel L Jackson, Lorenza Izzo
1 STAR (out of 5)
Ever fancied watching the cinematic equivalent of a headache?
Life Itself has already reached US audiences, for better or worse, though it has only very recently made itself known elsewhere – reaching the UK’s Sky Movies and streaming services at the head of 2019. It’s a movie which has apparently been released simultaneously in both cinemas and home streaming, making itself known as something of an ‘event’. While it’s a movie which has a fairly interesting concept, it’s one which toddles along and rather fails to deliver on an ultimately satisfying level.
A concept film focusing on the knock-on effect that one singular tragic event can have upon myriad lives and several generations, Life Itself opens on Samuel L Jackson giving us narrative score – only to pull the tug out from underneath us and to suggest that we should never really truly trust a narrator. As such, some of the events we are led to believe happen actually don’t, but some actually do, and all have a roundabout way of connecting to various lives which get caught up along the way. Interconnectivity is an interesting concept to tackle at any storytelling level, and it’s one I applaud – but how does such a level of dramatic intensity lend itself to a relatively short runtime?
Life Itself (Amazon Studios)
In short, we firstly follow the story of a young couple, Abby and Will (Wilde and Isaac), before the movie segues into another set of people’s lives, then another’s, then another’s, all affected by one tragic event. The purpose, it would seem, is to demonstrate how we are all ultimately dominoes in the same rally – and that, to paraphrase a completely different movie, the butterfly effect can change multiple destinies. This would have been perfectly fine to explore, of course, were it not handled with quite so much self-ingratiating tweeness, and ultimately, lack of profundity.
There are multiple issues worth talking about with this movie, but there are only so many column inches – so I’ll try and keep things to a certain level of brevity. Dan Fogelman is perhaps best known for helming a TV series called This Is Us, which is similarly soupy and often melodramatic – and the same can be said of Life Itself, which never really quite gets over a balance between being completely twee and fluttering and utterly over-the-top melodramatic for the sake of it. Some scenes are so sugary and so introspective for the sake of being introspective – only for them to be cut down by odd strokes in storytelling, for example, whereby a character will be suddenly killed – in a gruesome way – or we are given completely unnecessary strokes of backstory which are confoundingly heavy.
It’s easy to understand where such intentions were coming from. Life is undeniably cruel, and it comes thick and fast – but this flip-flop between airy sentimentality and tweeness and sudden clangers where someone dies horribly, or kills themselves – never really provides much of a happy balance. There is also the matter of the movie clearly being an attempt at trying to say something profound. Remember Collateral Beauty from a few years ago? It’s that level of self-knowing, attempted profundity – and while that movie perhaps hit a few strokes here and there, it at least wasn’t as thick on the content as Life Itself. What’s all the more bizarre is that, despite being so intense in places, and so utterly jam-packed with almost every dramatic twist and tragic event in the catalogue, it’s still so unfulfilling.
It does, at least, benefit from a good cast, one many will recognise many faces from – and there are a few scenes which do work well. Fogelman is a competent director – he’s certainly proven that over the years – but it seems that this project was perhaps a little too full-on for the medium. There’s an awful lot in play here, and while some of it works, it’s trying far too hard to be clever while offering very little in the way of actual escapist entertainment. I’m all for movies which try and send a message, but Life Itself rather insists upon itself to the extent that it actually becomes difficult to get through.
It does rather test a moviegoer’s nerve – it’s easily best suited to streaming and TV, and whether that was a conscious move given the material, I’m not sure. But it’s sometimes nice for movies like this to take a step back and look at themselves before proceeding – life is cruel, life is fascinating – this movie is hard work. What is it about 2019 and movies that are actively difficult to watch? Detective Pikachu cannot arrive soon enough.