The Movie Guru: Oscar Isaac gripping in interesting, deeply frustrating “Life Itself”
September 21, 2018
You will either love "Life Itself" or it will drive you insane. There is no in between.
The movie, written and directed by "This Is Us" creator Dan Fogelman, feels like a college creative writing essay about life, love, chance, and unreliable narrators. There are moments of massive originality, some poignant insights, and a truly fantastic cast who are all at the top of their game. Unfortunately, there's also a massive misuse of voiceover narration, serious pacing issues and the tendency to beat certain thematic points to death. The category that matters more will depend a great deal on who you are.
I don't want to say too much about the synopsis, since Fogelman sincerely doesn't want anyone to know what's going on before they step into the movie theater. I'll stick to essentially what's shown in the trailers and say that the movie draws connections through a couple of generations, telling different stories of love and loss that all end up tying together (as they tend to do in these sort of movies).
The movie's ambitions are big, and entirely focused around the idea that life is the ultimate unreliable narrator—I know for a fact that this is the movie's thesis statement, which Fogelman repeats approximately 45 times during the course of the movie. He brings this point home most creatively and effectively during the movie's first section, which features a masterful use of misdirect and tweaking audience expectation.
It's helped along quite a bit by a gut-punch of a performance from Oscar Isaac, who pretty much bares his soul and lays it out bleeding on the floor for the audience. It's impossible not to be moved by him, and Fogelman gives him as much room as he needs to milk every ounce of emotion out of the role. In later scenes, Olivia Cooke gives an excellent angry, raw performance, while Antonio Banderas goes a subtler, gentler route but comes to an equally compelling end.
Those are the good things, and from them come some genuinely compelling moments. But Fogelman tends to specifically state any thematic point he has over and over again in the narration. The situations he creates are more than enough to communicate the point for him, but it's as if he can't trust the audience to understand what he's trying to say.
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There's also the problem of the ending, which is more of a concluding paragraph than it is story. According to his narration the entire point has been building to this, but instead of tracing the last story with the detail he has everything else he suddenly cuts it off. It's the exact opposite of the old axiom "show, don't tell," and it makes the entire ending feel cheap and unearned.
As frustrated as I was with "Life Itself" at times, I would have loved for it to be a half hour longer if we could have gotten that ending.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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