At some point in the career of far too many a rising writer-director, it seems, especially those who lean into the “writer” portion of their portfolio, a demon alights on their shoulder and whispers, “You should really make a generations-spanning interlocking-stories narrative that says something deep and elusive about the human condition.” Pausing to see how the idea is going down (like with chicken pox, some filmmakers will be immune, some will get it only once, and a few, like Paul Haggis and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, will experience subsequent flare-ups), the imp may then add, “Just think of the cast you could get!”
“Life Itself” stars Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Laia Costa, Olivia Cooke, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, and more, and is the brainchild of writer-director Dan Fogelman, his second directorial feature after “Danny Collins” and the first to come on the heels of his highly successful NBC series “This Is Us.” It is sentimental and sprawling, which are not necessarily bad things, but also manipulative and contrived, which very much are. And though the terms “life” and “story” are used throughout as though they’re almost interchangeable, it never manages to convince us of that equivalence: Rather than ring with the noise of life itself, “Life Itself” clamors to the sound of the writer Fogelman very loudly writing.
The sheer effortfulness of Fogelman’s storytelling certainly bears out Thomas Mann’s pithy summation of a writer as “someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” This is especially apparent in the meta, fourth-wall-breaking opening section as we bear witness to the hardest part of this difficult process: finding a way to start. “Life Itself,” divided into four chapters and an epilogue, begins with a series of fake-outs, as though Fogelman has found himself keyless and locked out of his own story and has to break a window to get in. A witty prologue centers on Annette Bening’s therapist, who turns and smiles at us before nipping out for a quick cigarette (“though you’re not really allowed show people smoking any more” observes Samuel L. Jackson’s incongruous voiceover), encountering Oscar Isaac on a street corner (“Big fan!” he calls to her) and promptly being hit by a bus.
But never fear! All of this, Jackson included, is soon revealed to be part of a screenplay being written by Isaac’s unstable, bearded Will, who is in the therapeutic care of Dr. Morris (Bening). Will has been mixing pills and booze and endless replays of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” ever since his beloved pregnant wife Abby (Wilde) left, in unexplained circumstances around which Will circles in his therapy sessions. He sometimes appears in his own flashbacks, commenting on his younger, unbearded self like a spectator and worrying about the reliability of how he remembers things. Then again, “Life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator!” exclaims flashback-Abby, helpfully, and not for the last time, spelling out Fogelman’s dubious central thesis. And so when this segment ends, with shocking abruptness, we expect we’ve been duped again, only we haven’t: “Life Itself” is scuppered from the outset by being more believable in its fictions than in the parts that are supposed to have really happened.
After this we briefly check in with Will and Abby’s daughter Dylan (Cooke), “a young woman who scared the shit out of everybody” on her 21st birthday, before spinning unexpectedly across the Atlantic to Spain. The least tricksy and probably most effective part of the film, this section details the love triangle between olive-picker Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), local waitress and “fourth prettiest of six sisters” Bella (Laia Costa) and rich-guy landowner Vincent (Antonio Banderas, giving the film’s most touching and charismatic performance). The boy they raise, Rodrigo (Alex Monner) will eventually find himself in New York comforting a sobbing girl at a bus stop, thereby closing the circle of destiny and tragic irony in a way that life itself almost never does.
Littered with screenplay scraps, thesis extracts, letters, book readings, arch voiceover observations, and the kind of speechifying that could never happen spontaneously, “Life Itself” owes much more to the written word than to the cinematic image. And that’s borne out by the workmanlike craft: There is only so much warmth and variation that DP Brett Pawlak can inject into shot-reverse-shot conversations, and Federico Jusid’s score, coupled with an erratic selection of soundtrack cuts, manages to be intrusive without having much personality. And aside from the straightforward dramatics of the Spanish section, Fogelman’s instinct to over-explain through dialogue and then to undercut those explanations with some self-conscious device like a contradictory voiceover or a replay of the scene in a different register, means that the game cast rarely get to inhabit their characters. Sometimes the glitchy reworking of a moment can be amusing, but it comes at the cost of connection and insight.
More perplexingly, Fogelman’s approach to period and chronology is so odd that it’s with a shock that at the end, when the main voiceover is revealed to be from a woman (Lorenza Izzo) reading from her book, inevitably titled “Life Itself,” we realize that including the 42-year relationship she mentions, the span of time covered by the film is, conservatively speaking, about eight decades — yet the fashions and styling don’t seem to change perceptibly. Perhaps this is a deliberate choice, to make all the strands of the story feel contemporaneous, but then markers like a “Pulp Fiction”-themed party, pop culture references, and the recurring motif of Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind” album seem pretty anachronistic.
“When life brings you to your knees, get up, go further, and you will find love,” is the interminable, sappy moral that Fogelman seems to think he’s earned as the clockwork universe of his devising finally winds to a halt. But the real learning is for emerging filmmakers everywhere: When the interconnected-stories demon beckons, seriously consider throwing him under a bus.