The benefit to tearjerker schmaltz on television is that a series has at least ten episodes to parse out its bombs of emotion. This is how Dan Fogleman’s show This is Us can thrive. All those hours of TV give audiences time to get invested in the characters, so that when death and destruction come raining down, people care. Unfortunately, Fogleman in his film Life Itself has tried to squeeze all the melodrama of a season of This is Us into less than two hours. This is akin to emotional torture porn.
Do you want cancer? This film has it. Do you want suicide? You’ve got it. Do you want to be forced to listen to multiple people waxing poetic about Bob Dylan? Ugh, yeah, it’s got way too much of that.
The film is about several protagonists in interconnected stories that focus on BIG ideas about love and family and how we tell the stories of our lives.
The actors are fantastic all around. Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde have really nice chemistry as college sweethearts. Mandy Patinkin has his signature gruff sweetness as Isaac’s father. Antonio Banderas reminds audiences why he’s a star with his intense, smoldering portrayal of Mr. Saccione, a wealthy man who owns an olive vineyard. Like I said, this story goes all over the place. Annette Benning is woefully underutilized as a therapist, and Samuel L. Jackson plays himself in a useless early scene.
One gimmick of interlocking stories should be enough, but this film is suffocated by devices. Even how these characters intersect is so unbelievably farfetched that it borders on laughable (indeed, those are the films early laughs). There’s heavy-handed narration, misdirect scenes, fantasy scenes, flashbacks, lions, tigers, bears… well not the last three, but you get the idea. You even have to suffer through a time lapse look as a child’s face turns into an adult face. There’s so much artifice in this film and being told how one should feel, an overabundance of unrelenting pain that it’s hard to have much time to care about the characters.
I should point out the female characters are either manic pixie dream girls (Wilde’s Abby) or martyr mothers (Laia Costa as Isabel). For a film that wants audiences to care so much for its characters, it seems to give all the agency to its male protagonists or as it refers to them as “the heroes.”
Even fans of This is Us may find Life Itself too heavy-handed and morose. The only reason to see the film is to realize that all these intriguing actors deserve a hell of a lot better. Even a guest spot on This Is Us would be a huge step up.