Watching movie trailers is one of my favorite things to do. I even like to go back and watch the trailer after having already seen the movie. We all know that the purpose of a movie trailer is to provide a certain set of expectations and a preview of what’s to come. That is the main reason I enjoy them so much. Half of the time it builds my excitement and the film exceeds what I had imagined and sometimes my expectations are set far too high. Sadly, Life Itself falls under the latter category. What sells itself as a small romantic drama is actually a story covered in tragedy and confusion.
Based on some of his previous work, (Crazy Stupid Love and NBC’s This Is Us) it’s clear that writer and director, Dan Fogelman, enjoys the element of a surprise. He also enjoys telling a story filled with characters all connecting in intricate and unexpected ways through six degrees of separation. In this case, Life Itself tells the series of surprises that often fill up one’s life and the series of events that create one’s family history. Up until now, Fogelman has been successful with telling his stories this way. This is why my expectations got the better of me. His previous work shows me that he is capable of interweaving the lives of multiple characters in a way that works. This time around it was a mess that presented itself within the first 10 minutes. It took itself way too seriously with an over complicated series of chapters and characters that fail to emotionally connect with the audience.
The first chapter tells the love story of Will and Abby (Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde). I absolutely hated the way their story was told and this should have been a big indicator of what was to come. Their story starts with the two meeting and dating in college, then early on in their marriage and ends just days before their daughter is born. Will tells their story through a series of flashbacks and a strangely edited conversation with his therapist (Annette Bening). It’s hard to tell what is actually happening here. There’s a lot of choppy storytelling happening between the flashbacks and reality, plus there’s little provided that tells when these events are actually taking place. This is frustrating and difficult to follow. Through a few conversations we are given glimpses into who they are but are really only offered details about Abby’s life. Hers was a tragic story of losing her parents at a young age and being raised by an abusive uncle. We’re never given much information about Will at all, which makes it difficult to understand their relationship and to connect with either of them. Not knowing anything is a problem because I couldn’t become invested in their relationship. So when their chapter ends with a tragedy, it was more of an abrupt ending that I hadn’t expected than one that actually made me feel something.
This was a pattern that continued through the rest of the film. Whenever something happened to these characters, which plenty does, I didn’t care. I was unable to connect with them because you didn’t know anything about them or you spent so little time with them before the story moved in another direction. After Will and Abby’s chapter the film continues with their daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke). This chapter is a complete waste of time. All it showed us was that Dylan was an angry young adult in a punk rock band living with her grandfather (Mandy Patinkin). While the opening chapter frustrated me this one was probably the most disappointing. Cooke is a wonderful young actor and I was really looking forward to her performance. Unfortunately, there was so little to her character and so little time spent in her chapter. Simply showing a brief montage didn’t help me to develop any short of empathy for her or to feel a certain way about her relationship with her grandfather. In these short moments with Dylan she is very cold and seemed to have a lot of built up anger. One morning she completely breaks down in tears after she wakes up having fallen asleep drunk on a street bench. Then once again just as I had gotten to the point where I thought some real feelings might start to arise in me, the film completely shifts in its pace and setting. Suddenly another chapter opens in the Spanish countryside with a drawn out conversation between a wealthy landowner (Antonio Banderas) and one of his workers (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). This is just another one of the points where the film becomes complicated. Halfway through Banderas going on and on, I was left wondering what was going on. I had no idea who these men were or how they connected to the characters I had just spent time with. This constant toying with my head and emotions became incredibly frustrating.
Something else that added to my frustration was the cast. Each member of the cast was highly underutilized. There are some really good actors within this cast but not one of them gives a memorable performance. They also aren’t given enough time or a good enough screenplay for this to happen. Just when you started to become invested in what was going on with a particular character the rug was ripped out from under you. The trailer showcases all the faces from the bigger names but in reality those actors aren’t even in the majority of the film. The actors that might have drawn your attention in the first place only appear within maybe the first half hour. I don’t have an issue with being introduced to a new actor that I’m unfamiliar with (Laia Costa) but again it comes back to the manipulation. The trailer promises one thing but delivers something else entirely.
As Life Itself came to a close it was evident that this was an incredible waste of my time. It provided plenty of frustrations and was easily one of the most disappointing films this year. I know that Dan Fogelman is capable of telling a story that brings forth genuine emotions and can tug at your heart. But this film didn’t even come close. Nothing about it was what I was hoping for and I feel cheated out of a film that at one time looked so promising.
1 out of 5 stars
Director: Dan Fogelman Writer: Dan Fogelman Starring: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Antonio Banderes Release Date: September 21 Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour and 58 minutes