There are elements of a good movie in “Life Itself,” a deeply thoughtful melodrama from Emmy-winning “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman.
Slowly, painfully over the course of two hours, this is all stripped away as viewers are consistently ripped apart emotionally with jarring, contrived twists of fate.
It’s all in service of Fogelman’s overarching premise, that life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator and that at any moment, the rug can be irreversibly pulled out from underneath you with good or (largely) bad consequences.
Much like “This Is Us,” the premise of “Life Itself” is framed around adorable couple Will and Abby and how the impact of tragedy ripples through generations of their family.
It’s difficult to explain the film beyond general terms without completely spoiling all the intricate details Fogelman litters into his script. “Life Itself” divides itself into distinct chapters, each with its own portion of the cast, setting and language. (A large segment of the film is set in Spain with Spanish dialogue and English subtitles.)
The great scenes within “Life Itself,” and there are some truly special pockets within the narrative, usually come when talented actors are left to their own devices to bring depth to a scene.
An entire film could be made of the relationship between Will and Abby and it would be brilliant and beautiful thanks in large part to the unlikely, yet terrific chemistry between Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde.
Their scene lying in bed together talking about musical comeback albums is perfect, bathed in warm sunlight and incredibly nuanced as Fogelman returns to the moment over and over again to highlight something different.
Mandy Patinkin is tremendous in a touching sequence as a grandfather consoling her fraught granddaughter. Given the room to play the scene with a range of emotions, Patinkin is a joy to watch, equal parts tender and strong in a complex moment. Fogelman actually enhances this scene through a plot device reliving the scene from several angles.
About 15 minutes of “Life Itself” is truly special, unique and beautiful cinema. The rest of the film, however, is plain difficult to watch without cringing either for the plight of the characters or the pretentiousness of the screenplay.
For a film so entranced by its multi-generational premise, Fogelman doesn’t really do an effective job dating the sections of “Life Itself.”
There’s a few early references to “Pulp Fiction” in a present context and characters in different chapters define their relationship to Bob Dylan music in a present/past way.
Aside from that, there are no visual or plot cues that inform audiences as to the greater context of “Life Itself,” which makes the whole feature unnecessarily convoluted and muddled.
It’s clear that Fogelman’s inexperience behind the camera as director was unable to overcome his strict adherence to his languishing, high-brow screenplay.
At its core, “Life Itself” is 120 minutes of an emotional gut punch to the stomach, insistent on speaking to the power of love and resilience at any cost.
If Fogelman were able to string out these associated stories into a miniseries or television program, perhaps the premise would be more effective and less brutal. Then again, that’s “This Is Us” in a nutshell.
The collection of talent Fogelman has assembled to give life to his film merits real consideration for a trip to the cinema. Isaac and Wilde — who simply aren’t in the film enough — are worth the price of admission alone.
For viewers, it all comes down to whether or not they can handle the emotional trauma “Life Itself” delivers.
Those who can may find the whole experience rewarding. For those who can’t, “Life Itself” may be pointless.