Don’t see Life Itself if you aren’t ready to fully engage and be in your feelings. Seriously.
Life Itself is a full-on drama. It’s built on the highs, lows, drama, and unexpected melodrama of introspection played out in three acts; or rather five chapters.
It has no “just-for-a-laugh” moments, no throw-away tension breakers, or mere transitions between characters. Every single scene, set-up, segue, flashback, visual cue, and every piece of information shared by the disembodied narrator is of vital storytelling importance.
Writer-director Dan Fogelman has a reputation for playing to the heart in order to cry havoc and unleash the pain. I don’t watch This Is US because I don’t need a weekly catharsis that leaves me emotionally useless for an indefinite period of time.
But knowing this about his style means learning that Life Itself begins with a red herring and caustic humor that swiftly turns to tragedy should be no surprise.
Will’s (Oscar Issac) in the midst of a horrific mental breakdown. His wife has left him and Will’s clearly in unimaginable pain; so much pain he’s under a therapist’s ( Annette Bening) care. Watching him attempt to come to terms with it all is, painful.
There aren’t many (mainstream) films that examine loss in this fashion. Fogleman’s decision to present how a mind broken by tragedy rewrites history to avoid facing an untenable truth is a good one. It presents the past (can’t hate on good flashback sequences) but keeps the story pressing forward without breaking the fourth wall. The climax is abrupt and duly explosive.
Oscar Issac is a past-master at pulling an audience into his understated performances. His turn as Will is no less skillful. He’s brooding and angst-filled, earnest, and starry-eyed with love right up until he’s utterly destroyed in heartbreak.
So, prepare yourself because Fogelman’s story builds a poignantly beautiful relationship between Will and his wife, Abby (played with engaging effervescence by Olivia Wilde) only to rip it to complete and utter shreds then, as life always demands, carry on revealing the ripples and far-reaching (and yes, connected) consequences of that loss.
Ten-will-get-you-twenty, had this movie stayed rooted here, stretching out this portion of its tale to a full-length feature, everyone would be losing their minds raving.
But, Life Itself keeps going because, in the real world, no one’s around to yell cut.
The film further unravels the tragedy its built upon down through the familial line. Again, this is Fogelman so this is hardly a surprise. None of the tricks in this story are subtle. It’s a high-minded concept piece where the writer remembers to keep the audience in the loop. In place of a Greek chorus, we have a disembodied narrator cluing us into all the omniscient details of life.
So, let’s just as Chapter Two begins if you’re looking for shiny-happy-people Life Itself is not for you. These lives aren’t neatly encapsulated in easy to digest (or witness) feelings. If it’s possible for things to get worse before they get better (ahem, like life) then its certain to unfold from here on out.
These chapters explore life as an exercise in compartmentalization, pain avoidance, and the harsh and idiotic choices we all make that set most of our personal trials and tribulations in motion. There’s joy, success, fear, loathing, despair, and defeat.
I don’t think there’s any way to discuss the remainder of the story without spoiling so I’m not even going to try.
But, if you’ve ever acknowledged (out loud) everything doesn’t always happen for a reason because some time shit happens, or looked around at your life scattered in ruin, then brushed yourself off and got on with living as best you can then Life Itself is likely to feel recognizable.
This amazing cast pulled up the best and worst of human emotion and gave it a relatable (sometimes) face and voice. It takes time (like life) to navigate through the fall-out from split-second decisions, ego-driven choices, and unexpected trials (again, like life).
In the end, Life Itself speaks with an emotional sincerity sure to make some folks who prefer their visual emoting to feel far more upbeat (and much less real) uncomfortable – and that’s if they didn’t just check out.
It isn’t a perfect movie. There are few moments where I feel like some choice directorial moves would’ve retained a higher level of emotional (as if it needed it) continuity. The pace through the second act was unnecessarily choppy because scenes went on far longer than needed to make their point. I’m not wholly enamored of the ending but that’s likely because my emotional pay off came earlier on.
But I thoroughly enjoyed watching a drama that wasn’t about picking sides or defeating some great unbelievable emotional Everest. Both the men and women are a mess and emotional. The story’s rooted in a realness that certainly messes with your head but that’s just because therein lies all kinds of truth.
Life Itself is a multigenerational story about the vagaries of passion, pain, and most especially love, both terrible and triumphant. It’s about perseverance, clarity, and perspective pretty much like life itself (see what happened there?).
So, be sure to brace because it’s a seriously bumpy (emotional) ride. You’ll laugh, cry, possibly stare around in confusion, and ultimately walk away questioning whether you needed to ever examine life that closely.
Fogelman’s pretty in your face about building an entire film thematically around the concept of the unreliable narrator and what that means. Given that, a lot of people (critics included) are still going to miss Life Itself’s point.
There’s some serious irony in that realization for me. Which of course, probably made me like it more.
Rating: 3 out of 5
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