Dan Fogelman has become a household name. The creator of This is Us has a generally good track record for putting out good stuff (Tangled and the short-lived Galavant, RIP, being examples). But hey, not everything is going to be a hit and Life Itself, which Fogelman writes and directs, most definitely isn’t. Far from it. The film, which has been compared to and marketed in such a way that’ll have you believing it’s the movie version of This is Us, is an emotional misfire. It pretends to be heartfelt and sincere, with a journey that spans generations. But in its attempts to be meaningful and impactful, Life Itself’s approach is disingenuous.
Fogelman is laser focused on the idea of the “unreliable narrator,” something the film is full of–from Samuel L. Jackson to Hannah Wood, Oscar Isaac to Antonio Banderas. The story follows that of Abby (Olivia Wilde) and Will (Isaac), a young couple who meet during their college years, later get married, and are on the road to welcoming their first child. They are essentially the glue that holds the rest of the stories together. The events leading up to the birth of their daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke), and the events six months after are what propel the narrative. It’s like a domino effect, one piece gets knocked over and it creates a ripple effect.
This ripple effect reaches Andalusia, Spain, where another young couple, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Isabel (Laia Costa), get married and have a son, Rodrigo (Àlex Monner). Javier is the foreman working the land for Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas), a rich man who has nothing but his money and bad memories. After a trip to New York, the couple and Rodrigo witness a traumatic event that affects both families across continents for years to come, alters the course of their lives, and somehow brings them all together.
Life Itself is emotionally manipulative. It banks on the melodrama and expects us to become attached to the characters and the tragedies that befall them. But none of the characters actually feel whole. They’re all pawns of the story, purposeful stepping stones easily dismissed just so that Fogelman can get to the even more dramatic ending. The film’s primary concern is in its attempt to be profound, to give itself meaning, to prove a thesis Olivia Wilde’s Abby sets forth in the first act: that life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator. And if that’s the case, then the entire movie becomes pointless because it reduces itself to make that point and makes it hard to trust anything happening.
The film never comes together organically and all the singular threads are forcibly pushed together. Fogelman essentially sets up the entire story to ensure maximum suffering for everyone involved. Death, blood, abuse, trauma, and tears are all part of the mix, a combination that is emotionally exhausting to watch. Life Itself is one big emotional con and at several points in the film we have to be told of the impact of events on characters instead of letting the story do the work.
The tone is also inconsistent. The film opens with Samuel L. Jackson narrating before changing course and altering the whole movie. Separating the film by chapters and then waiting until the final moments to bring everything together doesn’t give it much fluidity either. It also takes its time getting to the end so it’s more like “why do we have to sit through all of these emotionally calculating scenes just to get there?” rather than feeling genuine enjoyment for the story. Life Itself is incredibly melodramatic all for the sake of proving a point that doesn’t need to be proven. Even with an incredible cast, the film seeks to be more than what it is, is far more concerned with its ending, and neglects and uses all of the characters on its way there.