Navigating through the haze that is “Life Itself” isn’t the most pleasurable experience. But this wasn’t totally unexpected. Writer/Director Dan Fogelman’s quasi-meditation on life and death has been widely panned by critics appearing on more than one ‘Worst of’ list last year. But when movies sport such an intriguing cast I like to give them a chance.
Unfortunately “Life Itself” gives you cause for concern right out of the gate. It starts with an off-putting opening sequence featuring truly cringe-worthy narration from Samuel L. Jackson (who must have been told to milk every drop out of his Samuel L. persona). It’s meant to serve as an introduction to the first of five chapters all connected by one traumatic event.
Chapter one focuses on a deeply depressed and lonely New Yorker named Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac). Through flashbacks on top of flashbacks we learn of his past relationship with the free-spirited Abby (Olivia Wilde). Fogelman attempts to put us in Will’s head as he constructs stories in his mind that we must sift through to find the truth.
Most of our clarity comes from a messy series of sessions Will has with his therapist (Annette Bening). These scenes range from exposition-soaked chats to weird trips back in time where the two resemble ghosts from Christmas past. Isaac and Bening give it their best and they’re clearly better than the material they are working with. Isaac works especially hard trying to add emotional depth and nuance to his character. He can only do so much.
The narrative leapfrogs back-and-forth across the timeline before finally getting to the key incident and the ripple effect it has across the remaining chapters. Each chapter attempts to tell a different person’s story yet the connections between them are glaringly obvious. But it some cases it takes time to come into focus. Take when the story suddenly shifts from the Big Apple to the countryside of Spain.
Here we have Vincent (Antonio Banderas, again a good performance despite the material) who grows olives on a patch of land he owns. He promotes the quiet but hardworking Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) to foreman. Now with a means of support, Javier marries his girlfriend Isabel (Laia Costa) and they have a son. Like the New York storyline, this one hops through time, shifts its focus and reveals its connection to what we’ve seen already.
If all of this sounds too hard to follow, don’t worry. Fogelman spells it all out to us. Every detail, every emotion, you name it. Any question you might have is probably answered in an on-the-nose flashback or montage. We are given no room to wrestle with these characters or come to our own conclusions about them. This seems like an example of a filmmaker not trusting his audience to understand his movie.
It’s odd that a film filled with this much sorrow, longing, heartache, and loss can leave you so emotionally numb. Perhaps if it didn’t hold our hand the entire time. Maybe if it weren’t so sloppy in its execution. It’s funny, the ending seems perfectly fitting – a facepalm worthy finish that’s telegraphed from miles away. On one hand I want to give credit to Fogelman for having a unique concept and interesting vision. On the other I’m reminded of how poorly it all comes together and no amount of time leaps or Bob Dylan references can save it.
VERDICT – 1.5 STARS