Life Itself

 

            “Life Itself” plays with the viewer.  Writer and Director Dan Fogelman first gives us a film-school kind of segment, with Samuel L. Jackson ranting on the overdub.  We also get a “tease” about a horrible traffic accident that didn't really happen then, but one a lot like it happens later.  Samuel L. Jackson makes a cameo, then disappears.

            Next, we have an obviously depressed man, Will (Oscar Isaac), who's trying to work through his issues with a patient, persistent, but ultimately inept therapist, Dr. Morris (Annete Bening).  She's trying to get Will to talk about his relationship with the love of his life, Abby (Olivia Wilde), but he tends to either create narrative or ignore her, or both.  The flashbacks of Will and Abby feel like a good old-fashioned romance, but everything is not as it appears.  Throw in a couple of awkward scenes with Will's parents, and some even more awkward scenes with their teenage granddaughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke), and you have the potential of some real character development, but Mr. Fogelman then restlessly changes venues.

            Suddenly we're not in New York City anymore, we're in Andulusia, Spain, somewhere in the prime olive-growing country.  Another romance, this time between a proud farm foreman, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and a clumsy waitress, Isabel (Laia Costa), who get to live in the “big house” because of the largesse of the landowner, Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas).  Soon we learn why the wealthy landowner has an Italian name, and how he inherited his wealth.  Mr. Saccione takes a great interest in Javier and Isabel's son, Rodrigo (Alex Monner), and is convinced that a fine education will broaden his horizons, which is how we wind up back in New York City.

            Mr. Fogelman will sometimes have his characters eavesdrop on their own scenes, and make comments over a freeze-frame, which definitely affects the viewer's suspension of disbelief.  The whole time we're in Andulusa, we're wondering how these seemingly disparate chapters are going to intersect, and eventually we find out, but it takes a couple of generations, and most of the rest of the movie.

            Oscar Isaac gets to show us that he's a lot more than a Star Wars spaceship pilot.  Annete Bening wears her maturity with a certain grace that can't be faked.  Olivia Wilde shows us her radiant side, and Olivia Cooke her rebellious, fractious side.  Isabel is endearing as a young married, but isn't very convincing in her illness phase.  Antonio Banderas wears easily the casual confidence of the very rich.  Sergio Peris-Mencheta convinces us that he is both simple and complicated, in how he will not accept someone else's generosity, until he does, and then it erodes his fragile self-confidence.  Alex Monner, playing the foreign student in the United States, puts up with a vapid and vacuous girlfriend as if that's part of the experience of learning American culture.  And we shudder to think that might be true. 

            Mr. Fogelman certainly presents us with a lot of relational dynamics in one film;  too many, really, for effective focus.  He also bombards us with considerable subtitling, which some viewers endure better than others.  This multi-generational presentation is certainly different:  somewhat endearing, but also somewhat emotionally exhausting.  Possibly like Life Itself.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association