Life Itself: LFF Film Review

I love Dan Fogelman‘s TV creation, the emotional family drama This Is Us. Many people (particularly in the UK) have criticised it for being too sentimental but I love the story and characters and how moving it is. I never noticed how sappy it was watching an episode a week, but Fogelman’s love of the sentimental tearjerker was blindly obvious with Life Itself, which he wrote and directed.

The film is told in chapters telling the story of how one tragic accident has affected the lives of those connected to it. It begins with Will (Oscar Isaac) who has recently been released from an institution and is self-medicating with pills and alcohol. His story is mainly told through his visit to his therapist Cait (Annette Bening) where he talks about his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) who has recently left him. The second chapter follows their daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) while the next moves to Spain, focusing on a family connected to the accident, including landowner Vincent (Antonio Banderas), his worker Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), his wife Isabel (Laia Costa) and their son Rodrigo (multiple actors, primarily Alex Monner).

You must know by now that I love a movie that tugs on the heartstrings and makes me have a little cry, but Life Itself lays it on way too thick. There are only so many tragedies one story can have before it becomes a melodrama. There was just too much death and other dark stuff and it was totally depressing. And in an attempt to make the tragedies even more tragic, it makes the love stories unrealistically sweet and sentimental.

It made me realise that this is what Fogelman does with This Is Us, but because that takes its time and is spread across 20+ hours per season, it isn’t as obvious and in your face. It feels natural and the tragedies are separated by happy events, whereas with Life Itself, he has condense it into not only a feature length, but a short chapter within it, which means it feels like the tragedies never stop coming. The first chapter was the worst for this – so much happens that I almost needed a break from it. Luckily, we get that break with the Gonzalez family in Spain, but then that eventually turns dark too.

The script isn’t the greatest. I liked some of its ideas but sometimes it repeats them, like it’s really trying to hammer things home, even though we’ve already got it. Some of the lines are so cheesy and cringeworthy, particularly with Isaac, from trying to establish how hard and completely he loved Abby in college to how devastated and despairing he is in the present. The Spanish stories were written better and felt slightly more realistic which is why that portion was more emotionally effective, and did succeed in making me cry. I could see how the stories were going to link up a mile away but I guess it’s nice to tie it up in a little bow.

Isaac really goes for it emotionally although occasionally he would overdo things. Wilde was a lot of fun and very cool, as always, while Cooke didn’t get enough time to really delve into her character. Costa was my favourite performance in the film – I liked her the most and she was the one who made me cry.

Life Itself is a pure melodrama that tries too hard to pull on the heartstrings and will leave you feeling a bit bummed out. Perhaps Fogelman’s talents are better suited to TV.

Seen as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival. Set for release on 4 January 2019.  

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