Life Can Be A Mess, But So Is 'Life Itself'
Imagine that you sit down in a darkened theater to see a film about which you know nothing. (This film does not exist, but go with it.) In the first scene, a man lovingly rehabilitates a three-legged dog. In the next — apparently unconnected — scene, a young girl sits behind the wheel of a car on her father's lap, giggling as he lets her "drive." Words come up on the screen: "Written by Dan Fogelman." At this point, if you are smart, you will lean over to the person next to you, and you will whisper in their ear, as inconspicuously as you can.
"I bet she grows up and runs over the dog."
Fogelman is best-known at the moment as the creator of This Is Us, a hit NBC drama in an age of very few such success stories. It is, like Fogelman's new film Life Itself and his 2011 comedy Crazy Stupid Love, an "everything is connected" project, in which events in one story wind up intersecting with events of another. In Life Itself, which he also directed, he's at it again.
We spend some of our time on the story of New York marrieds Will and Abby Dempsey. Will (Oscar Isaac) has become rather a mess, and has a gentle therapist (Annette Bening) who's trying to guide him through a reexamination of his relationship with Abby (Olivia Wilde), all of which takes place in flashback. We see how Will courted Abby with an almost unsettling intensity — this is the bit in the trailer in which he says that once he asks her out, their relationship will be forever — and how they eventually settled into married life. We learn what has become of them since then, and why it has so upended Will's life.
But then, the focus shifts from New York to Spain, and specifically to the olive groves of the wealthy Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas). His trusted foreman, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), has great loves of his own: his wife Isabelle (Laia Costa) and their son Rodrigo (Alex Monner). Pride, love, wealth, jealousy, and health care costs all come into play.
Two families, different continents, no apparent connection. And while there is no driving lesson and no dog ... suffice it to say, it is a Fogelman story through and through.
There are individual scenes and moments that work almost startlingly well: a fight between Isabelle and Javier that pulses with her fury, exchanges between Will and Bening's therapist that have a dry, sneaky crackle, and the easy wisdom Mandy Patinkin brings to the role of Will's father (the great Jean Smart as his mother has considerably less to do). Banderas delivers a long monologue that is pure movie star, particularly spellbinding for those who haven't seen him act in Spanish in most of his major American studio releases. (All of the action in Spain is in Spanish, subtitled in English).
Where the film falls down is precisely where it attempts to be grand. The title comes from a painfully awkward sequence in which the concept of the unreliable narrator is garishly overexplained, which takes away from the parts of the film in which the concept of the unreliable narrator is ably demonstrated. There is an intriguing moment, for instance, in which Will is forced to wonder whether his ardor — which once made Abby worry "I may not be equipped to be loved this much" — was romantic to her the way it was to him, or whether perhaps she found it smothering. But just as Fogelman begins to play with this idea directorially, he drops it, and the promising technique is never used again.
Similarly, the scenes set in Spain are gorgeous and the performances are strong, and Fogelman's desire to make the interconnectedness of the characters feel global makes sense, the subtitled Spanish-language dialogue doesn't match the looseness of the sequences in New York. The story with Isaac and Wilde is chatty, casual, conversational; the story with Banderas is pure melodrama, full of grand declarations and short on humor.
And while Fogelman is well-established as a versatile writer — he wrote Tangled, for crying out loud — this is only his second feature as a director after 2015's Danny Collins. His approach at times feels generic, shooting scenes of intimacy with a tentativeness that doesn't quite feel appropriate. While he's fond of extreme close-ups of faces for effect, the film could have used a more distinctive style, given that the structure is so unusual.
Because Fogelman's thematic interests are so particular, it's worth thinking through what he's trying to say about everything being connected. In interviews, he's suggested that what drives his curiosity is really the tendency of, uh, life itself to be tonally uneven and a bit on the nose: good things happening on the anniversaries of bad things, for instance. He is talking about connection in the sense of intersection: The person who appears on your doorstep needing help may actually be someone you passed in the street as a child, that sort of thing. But is that what connectedness is about?
One of the things that makes Life Itself not satisfying is that it relies on coincidence to substantiate connection. It ties together its characters through the bizarre operation of happenstance. But when we crave connection, when we wonder about our place in the world, is that really what we mean? Couldn't we argue that everything is connected in that even if we don't all share a common purpose, or basic levels of empathy for each other, we at least share a common fate? Are you connected to that stranger because you may have once sat across from each other in a public library, or because you are both human beings who have shared needs? Is it more important that we recognize a connection to families working in Spanish olive groves because we might cross paths with them, or simply because, on principle, such connections are real?
It's impossible not to admire Fogelman's structural experimentation and his philosophical ambitions, which are considerable. But as these notes are struck harder and harder in each piece he writes — Crazy Stupid Love has less of this path-crossing than This Is Us, which has less than Life Itself — the returns diminish.
One final note: I saw this film at a public screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. As it ended, there was considerable weeping from the audience. This Is Us has embraced its reputation as the show that makes you sob your eyes out; it is nothing if not good at that. Life Itself is efficient in that way, too, and if you are up for a good cry — in fact, if you crave one — you will probably get it. But it may be more of a reflex than anything.
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