Movie Review: ‘Life Itself’ ambitiously tries to thread the ‘This Is Us’ needle

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Life Itself' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Dan Fogelman has been one of the hottest hands in Hollywood lately.

He broke through with the delicious family comedy “Crazy Stupid Love” (2011), teasing the romantic potential between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, then created NBC’s “This Is Us,” making household names out of Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore and Sterling K. Brown.

In both of those gems, Fogelman threaded the needle between astute social commentary and feel-good wholesomeness, a tightrope act that wobbles in the new movie “Life Itself.” The conceit is admirably ambitious and never boring, but tries a little too hard to be stylistically dynamic and substantively profound. It’s a self-inflicted clash to attempt an outside-the-box rule-breaker when your tone is this heavy-handed. The result is a Hallmark movie on crack.

Similar to “This Is Us,” the story tracks multiple generations of interconnected families. First, we meet a New York couple, Will and Abby (Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde), awaiting the birth of their first child. Next, we meet their jaded grown-up daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke). From there, we head to Spain to meet Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and wife Isabel (Laia Costa). And finally, we meet their son Rodrigo (Alex Monner) who makes his way from Spain to NYU.

If that feels like a lot to keep track of, you’re right. Fogelman tries to break it up with chapter book titles, similar to Alec Baldwin’s narration in Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001), only here it’s narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. At least, that’s what we think, before realizing we’re in a “Stranger Than Fiction”-style screenplay as a prologue. Still with me?

Back to reality, we meet the “Hero” — or so we think — as Issac visits his therapist (Annette Bening) to grieve his apparent breakup with Wilde. Quoting Bob Dylan and disturbing the peace at coffee shops, he’s a heartbroken dude trying to piece his life back together. As such, we enjoy flashbacks of his romance with Wilde, filled with poetic declarations of love, “Pulp Fiction” costume parties and a dog named “F*** Face” (you won’t see that on NBC, folks!).

Hold up, it seems that Isaac is not actually the “hero” of this tale; it’s time to meet the real protagonist — or so we think — his grown-up daughter Dylan (aptly named). Cooke plays the part with believable angst, eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches in the family tradition. But just as we lean in for a heart-tugging moment at the piano, she jarringly launches into hard rock that isn’t the beautiful screaming of heavy metal but rather tone-deaf shouting.

But wait, you guessed it, turns out she’s also not the hero; rather, it’s time to meet the real protagonist — or so we think — hardworking Spanish farmer Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), who battles his rich colleague (Antonio Banderas) for the heart of Isabel (Laia Costa). The Spanish Costa, who previously dazzled us in the German single-take thriller  “Victoria” (2015), is my favorite part of “Life Itself,” because she’s the one character who feels like life itself.

But wait, there’s more! Javier also isn’t the hero; it’s time to meet the real protagonist, his son Rodrigo (Alex Monner), who moves from Spain to New York City to study at NYU, where he falls for an annoyingly talkative girlfriend. We desperately root for their breakup, but it’s all just a way to tie the story back together, as this long rambling journey doubles back on itself.

As you can see, the ride is filled with countless “unreliable narrators,” which is actually the point laid out as the thesis of Wilde’s college dissertation. It’s a fascinating concept in theory, but in practice it becomes increasingly frustrating for viewers, as we’re repeatedly asked to abandon the very characters we’re invested in, only to abruptly land in another storyline.

Yes, we know that Fogelman will tie it all together under the guise of “everything happens for a reason.” Unfortunately, these coincidences feel less like miraculous twists of fate and more like over-plotted manipulations beneath a heavy-handed tone that is earnest to a fault. On a scale of “Magnolia” to “Crash” to “Collateral Beauty,” this one is closer to the lattermost.

To Fogelman’s credit, he at least makes a defense for his sentimentality, arguing that Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind” (1997) was misunderstood by critics for breaking up an entire album of depressing downers with an outlier love song (the beautiful ballad “To Make You Feel My Love,” covered by Garth Brooks “of all people,” Fogelman writes, not to mention Billy Joel).

But unlike the Dylan song, Fogelman’s movie is too sadistic to feel wholesome and too tidy to feel poetic. Perhaps we’ll look back years from now and re-examine “Life Itself,” but like the old movie sang, “What’s too painful too remember, we’ll simply choose to forget.” I appreciate Fogelman swinging for the fences, but sometimes ya gotta admit when it doesn’t quite work.

On the bright side, the title might cause folks to stumble upon the Roger Ebert documentary of the same name. Stream that instead, or “Crazy Stupid Love” if you haven’t seen it, or wait for Season 3 of “This Is Us” on Tuesday night, hopefully a return to form for Fogelman.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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