Talk, talk, talkity-talk ... that’s all that’s going down in “Life Itself,” the contrived melodrama from Dan Fogelman, the writer and creator of NBC’s weekly ugly cry fest “This Is Us.” In the movie, which Fogelman wrote and directed, characters blabber on and on about life (it’s unpredictable), love (it’s complicated) and loss (it hurts). And as if there wasn’t already enough gab, Fogelman relies on a persistent narrator to tell us what we’re supposed to be feeling. It’s as though he has little faith in the terrific ensemble he’s assembled, led by Olivia Wilde and Oscar Isaac as the young New York couple at the center of an interconnected narrative fleshing out their family tree.
Fogelman does come out of the gate swinging, beginning with a voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson — as himself — introducing a character and doling out a lesson on the “unreliable narrator.” In quick time, a bus strikes and kills a character. Commotion ensues and Jackson declares “I’m out.” Believe me, you won’t be far behind.
If you stick with it, know that Isaac’s “not-well” Will Dempsey is unhinged, drinking coffee laced with Xanax and whiskey. We meet him as he’s getting thrown out of — not a bar, but a Starbucks! Later, he recalls to his therapist (Annette Bening) a happy life with his “perfect” Bob Dylan-loving wife, Abby (Wilde). It’s a compelling back-and-forth with Isaac delivering a crazed performance juxtaposed nicely in flashback with a tender turn as the loving husband (think Jack from “This Is Us”) and expectant father. We’ll also meet Will’s parents (woefully underused Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart). And then the wheel’s fall off — fast, because, you know, as the movie TELLS us, it only takes a single moment to change your life forever. Every character seems to be neck-deep in tragedy, so much so a more apt title might be “Death Itself.”
The action then jumps to Spain, where it languishes for what seems like an eternity, as another young couple (Laia Costa and Sergio Peris-Menchet) starts their life together, living and working on an olive farm owned by Antonio Banderas. And, like Will and Abby, life is good, until it’s not. Yup, the times they are a-changin’ for Javier and Isabel and their son, Rodrigo (Alex Monner.) Ditto for Dylan (yes, she’s named after Him) Dempsey (Olivia Cooke), Will and Abby’s daughter, who is without much to do back in the States.
The story spans generations and continents, and Fogelman leaves no cliché untouched in navigating a non-linear timeline and shifting perspectives, including re-showing the effects of that tragic bus accident. Believe me, by the end of this drivel, you’ll be wishing you were the one pasted to the front of that bus.
Still, I did like the structure, the continuity of the peanut butter sandwich and the clever use of songs from Bob Dylan’s 1997 Grammy-winning “Time Out of Mind.” To describe the plot further would betray the film’s (flimsy) gimmick. Just know that Fogelman pours the trauma (child molestation, cancer, suicide) on thick, just as he does in his hit TV show. But in spreading it across the big screen, Fogelman fails to fulfill the movie’s early promise of unpredictability. Rather, everything falls neatly in place with “surprises” you can see coming a mile away, including the final big reveal.
It’s a long slog through sticky dialogue disguised as inspiration or revelation. Exhibit A: “I may not be equipped to handle how much you love me.” Exhibit B: “No one knows where their story is going.” Exhibit C: “When I ask you out, it’s going to be the most important moment of my life.” Exhibit D: Give me a minute … I feel nauseated.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner and Mandy Patinkin.
(R for language including sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use).