FILM REVIEW – LIFE ITSELF. With Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas. Written and directed by Dan Fogelman. Rated R for language including sexual references, some violent images, and brief drug use. 118 minutes.
LIFE ITSELF is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. For the terminally cynical that will make it unbearable. For those open to its message that life is a mixture of comedy and tragedy, it can be an engaging parable about how we can’t always foresee what will happen next. Sometimes, out of the depths of despair, there may be planted the seeds of future happiness. If that thought makes you gag, you’re probably not a fan of writer/director Dan Fogelman, best known for his TV show, “This is Us.”
The movie is told in chapters and seems to be jumping from one story to another until – and some viewers may anticipate it – everything is tied together in the end. It begins with Will (Oscar Isaac), who appears to be working on a screenplay but is really recovering from a mental breakdown after the end of his marriage to Abby (Olivia Wilde), the love of his life. His therapist (Annette Bening) tries to get him to face reality, but it does not end well.
The story continues with their daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke), who acts out her anger and depression at the hand she’s been dealt as the lead singer for a punk rock band. Suddenly the film shifts gears and we’ve moved from New York to Spain, where we focus on the marriage of Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Isabel (Laia Costa). When their young son witnesses a horrific accident and is troubled by nightmares, Javiar’s benevolent boss Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas) takes an interest. Unfortunately, he also takes an interest in Isabel.
To reveal much more of the plot would be to give things away. Fogelman’s point is that life is messy and doesn’t always work out as one might have hoped. As the old Yiddish expression goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” Terrible things happen to these characters. Yet wonderful things happen as well. Coping with the bad times instead of giving up seems to be the way that they can move beyond them.
Fogelman has assembled a wonderful cast. Isaac and Wilde, and Peris-Mencheta and Costa, are engaging as the loving couples, with Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart offering yet another couple as Will’s parents. While finding true love is no guarantee of happiness in the long term, it remains part of the human condition to seek it out. Rodrigo (Alex Monner) – Javier and Isabel’s son – learns this anew with the two relationships he pursues in the story.
“Life Itself” is a movie that wants to push your buttons. There are moments that will shock, moments that may move you to tears, and others that may make you smile. On the other hand, if your attitude is that life is meaningless and then you die, you may want to give this one a pass. Fogelman clearly believes life has meaning, even if we can’t always see it for ourselves.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.