The new multigenerational melodrama Life Itself struts like a peacock, unfurling its plumage with aggressive self-importance. But while it demands you admire its grandiloquent vision and pretensions at pop philosophy, it’s unaware of its own mange. The commitment of its all-star cast—which includes Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Antonio Banderas, Olivia Wilde, Olivia Cooke, and Samuel L. Jackson—can’t divert from the fact that its quills droop and sag, where they haven’t fallen off altogether. Behold the other North American flightless turkey.
Life Itself is written and directed by Dan Fogelman, best known for creating the megahit NBC series This is Us. In both of these projects, he attempts to update the tearjerker, adding an art house gloss (via naturalistic acting, warm lighting, and quick-cut editing) to scenes of “universal” milestones, such as proposals and pregnancies. On This is Us, the results alternate between cloying and (I must grudgingly admit) moving—the latter largely thanks to Sterling K. Brown’s standout performance as the black adopted son in an otherwise white family. But unlike the members of the Pearson clan, the sprawling, trans-Atlantic characters in Life Itself don’t get the opportunity to develop, which makes the movie feel like it’s on a loop: Life, it seems, can be summarized as Terrible Things Keep Happening to Nice, Attractive People, Especially the Women.
At first glance, Isaac’s Will, a struggling screenwriter in New York, isn’t nice at all. After getting himself thrown out of a coffee shop, he arrives at the office of his therapist (a thoroughly squandered Bening), sipping from a spiked cup of joe for court-appointed treatment. Through voice-over narration and extended flashbacks, we learn about Will’s relationship with his wife, Abby (Wilde), whose recent departure has left him in his current state. There’s a lot of claptrap in these early scenes about unreliable narrators and purported heroes—cues that we shouldn’t trust Will’s words. Still, I think we’re supposed find this pale imitation of Llewyn Davis Byronically charming, even when he tells his wife that her favorite singer, Bob Dylan, sounds like he’s singing with a “cock in his mouth.” By the time our second narrator—yeah, that’s a thing—tells us that Abby is the kind of wife any man would want because she’s beautiful, nurturing, and willing to put anything in her mouth (at a sushi restaurant, but the implication is that she’s remarkably low-maintenance—she didn’t even cry as a newborn), Fogelman’s tedious, artificial ideas about love and “the perfect woman” begin to mire the film in a fatal blandness.
That first chapter of Life Itself is the most eye-roll-worthy, but at least it’s memorable. The utterly forgettable second section deals with Will and Abby’s child, the now-grown Dylan (Cooke). Though the film’s plot spans several decades, there is little sense of the passage of time. Nor is there a single believable instance of trauma, despite the script’s heavy reliance on sudden tragedy. It’s a relief when the action abruptly transitions to an agricultural estate in Andalusia, where Banderas lends some much-needed gravitas that even Patinkin can’t muster as Dylan’s kindly grandfather. Playing a worldly business owner who falls in love with the newlywed wife (Laia Costa of the one-take feature Victoria) of his young foreman, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), Banderas, along with Costa, almost makes the preposterous love-triangle storyline work. A stand-alone film about their quasi-feudal situation—with the simmering tension between Banderas’ Señor Saccione, a lovelorn tycoon, and Costa’s Isabel, the principled wife of his most treasured employee—might have made for an interesting update on The Marriage of Figaro. But the script must move on, to Javier and Isabel’s son, Rigo (played as a college student by Àlex Monner). Leaving behind his terminally ill mother, Rigo heads to NYU, where Will and Abby met, to tie up the film’s storylines in a neat, unsurprising bow.
It’s too bad for Fogelman that Hollywood has already made movies named after all the major holidays—his brand of aspirational treacle would fit perfectly into the cinematic calendar between Mother’s Day, Fathers’ Day, and Valentine’s Day. Instead, the writer-director is left with trying to mine a sense of the sublime from the fact that, before Abby’s parents fell in love, her mom took too big a bite out of her peanut-butter sandwich, therefore making their first encounter a little awkward for two seconds. When not attempting to reverse-engineer gratitude and awe, Fogelman feigns intimacy with gentle guitar music and claustrophobic close-ups that repel the gaze. There are no life lessons to be gleaned, but fear not: Anyone who wants to question the point of existence will find the film itself an excellent prompt.