Written and directed by Dan Fogelman, Life Itself sees a young New York couple (Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde) go from college romance to marriage and parenthood, as the unexpected twists of their journey create reverberations that echo over continents and lifetimes. A multi-generational saga set in New York and Carmona, Spain – focusing on Vincent (Antonio Banderas), Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), Isabel (Laia Costa) and Rodrigo (Alex Monner) – the film is a celebration of the human condition laced with humour, poignancy and love.
As the film opens up, a narrator begins to detail the scene. When you suddenly realise that the voice-over is that of Samuel L. Jackson, you quickly begin to question how much the trailer has misled you. But as Isaac’s Will Dempsey closes his laptop and you realise that this scene was an imagined scenario, you expect Life Itself to get back to the love story that you have been promised. However, nothing will prepare you for just how much the film’s trailer really has deceived you, as Life Itself is far from the happily-ever-after that you thought it was going to be.
When a film has an ensemble cast of talented actors of different ages and is set in different countries, it’s obvious that the film is going to try and impress you with a surprise connection. With the tagline “We’re all part of a greater story”, Life Itself‘s intentions are quite obvious. We know that it’s all going to be linked in some way, so there are no surprises there, but it’s all about how it comes together as to whether it will impress us or not.
At first, I enjoyed how the story progressed and was even quite surprised by how the narratives intertwined with each other. However, I soon realised that I have seen it many times before. After recognising the similarities, I started to compare to the brilliant A Place Beyond The Pines. But Life Itself just doesn’t have the same impact afterwards.
Told in five chapters, it is only the first that you really get to see in the trailer. But it is this first chapter that completely stops you in your tracks. Unfortunately, it only goes downhill after that, falling on quite contrived and formulaic cliches with the overall message struggling to come across.
The film starts off well as Wilde’s character discusses her university thesis about unreliable narrators. This is when we begin to see where the story is going, as we are made to think about the story that Will is narrating. Is he telling us the truth? What if he’s only remembering the good parts? Or what if he completely misread everything to begin with?
A film like this could seriously be going somewhere. I recently read a book called The Sense of Ending by Julian Barnes which uses a similar plot device, but Life Itself started to do this in a much more relatable way. However, it just doesn’t go anywhere, and instead relies on this narration explaining everything for you rather than playing it out in a more effective way.
The problem is that Life Itself tries to broaden itself too much. I would have loved to see more from Olivia Cooke‘s character, so to have focused on these first two chapters with a slight connection to the Spanish stories would have been much better, in my eyes. Sadly, trying to expand itself so much only results in the plot spreading itself too thin.
You can tell what director Dan Fogelman really had his intentions on achieving, but the film seems to miss the point in the end. My viewing taught me that life, itself, is tragic. We may find love and happiness, but all love ends in death, illness, or mistrust. The way the film comes together seems to try and excuse the horrible things that can happen in life by saying that eventually, your tragedy will work its way into someone else’s health, fortune, and overall contentment. I would rather have been left with the thought life is just heartbreakingly evil at times than to be made to think that it’s okay to suffer for someone else’s gain.
That being said, the first chapter has really stuck with me so I am sticking by my high(ish) rating for now. The rest of the film is really well acted and filmed, it’s just the plot that weakens as it goes on.