Director: Dan Fogelman
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin
Watch Life Itself online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW TV
If you’ve suddenly found yourself bursting into tears near a TV set in the last 18 months, the chances are it’s because of Dan Fogelman and the tiny, tear-jerking juggernaut that is This Is Us. Life Itself, backed by Amazon Studios, sees Fogelman return to the big screen for a similarly criss-crossing ensemble drama that aims to blend quirky laughs with big-hearted philosophy.
The film begins by introducing us to Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde as Will and Abby, a New York couple whose lives are driven apart by tragedy. They’re the kind of Hollywoodised version of real people that never really ring true; a penchant for Pulp Fiction is their biggest character trait, they talk in self-aware dialogue that hopes to make up for its shallow nature by being self-aware, and their story is interrupted every other scene by a sentimental monologue. It’s a generation-spanning saga but it lacks the convincing weight to go with that scope – and, when it does try to carry that weight, it does so suddenly, in a way that only puts the script’s back out.
And yet, while it would be easy to dismiss the entire tapestry due to one bad strand, hidden away in this overwrought weave is a moving drama about a Spanish family working on an olive farm. Starring Antonio Banderas, Laia Costa and Sergio Peris-Mencheta, their chapter explores the way love can change over time, the way that trust can be earned and undermined, the way that relatives can drift apart and stay together. It’s well acted and, for as long as it’s free of the movie’s post-modern trappings, sincerely affecting.
But their tale can’t escape the movie’s cliched Manhattanite framework, which leaves its ultimate emotional impact lost in a sea of sentiment. Fogelman found the right ratio of sugar to heartbreak in his award-winning TV series, but the same approach becomes too unsubtle when scaled to the big screen; the weepie music is dialled up to 11, the convenient coincidences are wheeled out three too many times, and unnecessary narrators spend half the runtime telling us how unnecessary they are – before launching into contrived lectures about Bob Dylan. The whole thing, tellingly, wraps up in a voiceover that’s so busy trying to sound profound it forgets the heartfelt message that’s been running all the way through, and instead gives us a conclusion that seems entirely unrelated. The cast may be earnest, but one thing is clear: this isn’t This Is Us.
Life Itself is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.