‘Life Itself’ Pushes Buttons Just To Push Buttons [TIFF Review]

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TORONTO – Let’s get one thing out of the way.  Writer and director Dan Fogelman’s new film, “Life Itself,” is not attempting to be a big screen version of his critically acclaimed drama series“This Is Us.” No, this Amazon Studios release, which premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, is actually less realistic and more manipulative than that monster NBC hit. But, hey, you gotta do what you gotta do to push those tearjerker buttons, right?

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Divided into five chapters, in simplest terms “Life Itself” follows two generations of families who intertwine from New York City to the Spanish countryside and back again. It begins with an utterly pointless fake-out sequence from Fogelman featuring Samuel L. Jackson as a narrator supposedly chronicling a patient of Dr. Cait Morris (Annette Bening, hoping for the best). Instead, it turns out to just be a bad screenplay that Will (Oscar Isaac, not his finest moment) is writing and then gives up on. Will is an actual patient of Morris,’ and Fogelman quickly exploits one of their sessions to dive into the history of Will and the wife who has “left him,” Abby (Olivia Wilde, fine).

In a series of flashbacks we learn that Abby was recently pregnant, her parents were killed when she was six years old and she was physically abused by her Uncle before turning the tables on him by shooting him in the knee (does that sound like a lot to you?). It was love at first sight for Will and Abby at NYU…or was it? Will, who was also recently released from a psychiatric facility, admits to Dr. Morris even he isn’t even sure anymore (heads up, we’re less than 20 minutes into the movie at this point). We also discover from these flashbacks that Abby’s college thesis paper was on the subject of the unreliable narrator, someone, in case you are unaware, whose telling of a story may be different than actual, factual events for a variety of reasons. This notion is somehow supposed to be relevant to the film’s storyline but then turns out not to be. It’s just another overthought aspect of Fogelman’s screenplay. But, wait. We digress. There are so many more characters to introduce.

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Will and Abby give birth to a daughter, Dylan (played by Olivia Cooke from age 21 on), who is raised by her grandfather, Irwin (Mandy Patinkin, a victim of lots of bad beard and hair dye).  Dylan has no interest in going to college and just wants to party every night much to Irwin’s frustration (like many things, this aspect of her character is really never justified or explained).

Meanwhile, in a subsequent chapter, we’re introduced to Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas, looking much better here than in “Genius: Picasso”) who has inherited his father’s estate in Spain which includes an extensive and profitable olive grove. He recognizes a talented employee in Javier (Sergio Peres-Mencheta, giving it the college try) and awards him a promotion in hopes of enticing him to stay long term. Javier has also fallen for a local waitress, Elena (Lorenza Izzo, fine), and they soon marry giving birth to a young son, Rodrigo (numerous actors but eventually Alex Monner).

As you might have begun to suspect, the film takes place over numerous decades and the timelines are a bit of a confusing mess. Most of the time, everything looks like it’s occurring over the same period (there is one distinctive ‘80s flashback, but the rest of the film appears to transpire from circa 2006 on). Perhaps Fogelman thought jumping into the future 20 years from now would be too jarring or too expensive from a production design aspect. Maybe the director thinks having everything look the same is an aspect of the semi-forgotten unreliable narrator idea. Frankly, the only reason to even bring this up is that it’s so distracting, your mind starts to wander when you realize Abby is playing in a punk band 21 years ago in a rock club where everyone looks like they just stepped out of this past decade. And the same could be said as well of Rodrigo when he attends NYU two decades from now. It’s just an odd creative choice that distracts from the, ahem, “themes” Fogelman wants to explore.

And what are those themes? Geez, can we boil it down to just “shit happens”?  Because, frankly, that would be just as appropriate a title for the picture. We won’t spoil all the twists and turns, but Fogelman clearly gets a thrill in constructing a tapestry full of one random tragedy after another (seriously, almost nothing good seems to happen to these people long term). And he also appears to love manipulating the audience’s emotions with these subsequent tragedies. It’s one thing to string three or four of them across an 18-episode season of an hour-long drama. It’s another to include five to six of them in a movie under two hours including credits.

That being said, there is probably an audience for this sort of flick. “Life Itself” will play with viewers who love pointless melodrama and calculated buttons to make you tear up over characters you’ve only been introduced to 20 minutes before. Fogelman includes a ton of dialogue you can only describe as “cutesy” (especially between Will and Abby), the actors are doing their best to transcend the script and thanks to Brett Pawlak‘s cinematography the production certainly looks pretty. Honestly, it feels like one of those pictures that actually tests through the roof with audiences. You just wish it deserved to. [C]

Check out all our coverage from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival here.

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