“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
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.