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"LIFE ITSELF"
(2018) (Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: The lives of various people end up interconnected by tragedy.
PLOT:
In this tale of how various people end up interconnected by tragedy, the first chapter focuses on Will (OSCAR ISAAC), a New Yorker who's spent the past several months institutionalized following his college sweetheart turned pregnant wife, Abby (OLIVIA WILDE), having left him. A therapist, Dr. Morris (ANNETTE BENING), tries to help him through his loss.

In the second chapter, Will and Abby's now 21-year-old daughter, Dylan (OLIVIA COOKE) -- who ended up being raised alone by her grandfather, Irwin (MANDY PATINKIN), following the death of his wife, Linda (JEAN SMART), when the girl was just six -- is an angry young woman who's trying to figure out why the universe seems to be against her.

The third chapter focuses on Spanish olive picker Javier (SERGIO PERIS-MENCHETA) whose care for his work draws the attention of his wealthy boss, Mr. Saccione (ANTONIO BANDERAS), who promotes him to foreman status. That allows Javier to marry a local waitress, Isabel (LAIA COSTA), and have a child, Rodrigo (ADRIAN MARRERO). But with Saccione spending more time with his wife and boy, Javier sees the handwriting on the wall.

The fourth chapter then focuses on Rodrigo (ALEX MONNER) who's about to head off to college, but is concerned about his very ill mother. As those various stories play out, we ultimately see how all of them are connected.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Maybe because it's the basis of so many time travel movies, but I've long been fascinated by every life tumbler that had to fall in place to get anyone where they are at any given point in their existence. Some will argue that it's God's predetermined plan, but I think it's just dumb luck, both good and bad. Just imagine if a person decades or even centuries ago left a minute earlier or later than they really did, and that caused them to, directly and indirectly, interact with others in a slightly different way, causing those people's interactions to change and so on.

A person you don't know could have had one extra drink the night before, overslept the next morning, and through such a series of interconnected events with others your grandparents might not have ever met and thus you wouldn't exist. The mind reels at the endless combination possibilities involving people in your life who managed to nudge you to your current lot in life. Accordingly, I'm always a sucker for films that play off this notion, and not just sci-fi ones about time travel.

Case in point is "Life Itself," a drama that marks the sophomore big screen directorial offering from Dan Fogelman (following 2015's "Danny Collins") who's probably best known as the man behind the tearjerker TV drama "This Is Us." In this story that revolves around coping with tragedy that can affect strangers and thus tie them together via cosmic fate or whatever you'd like to call it, the film is broken into four distinct chapters. All feature a narrator where the underlying thesis is that no such storyteller is wholeheartedly reliable in terms of telling the exact truth and nothing but that truth.

That's most on display in the first installment where Samuel L. Jackson talks both to the viewer and the apparent "hero" protagonist of our tale. But all of this is a huge fake-out as we're really just watching the imagined result of a screenplay in progress being written by New Yorker Will (Oscar Isaac) who turns out to be an unreliable narrator himself as he talks to his therapist (Annette Bening) about the fallout and his emotional breakdown following his pregnant wife (Olivia Wilde) having left him six months ago. For me, this is the most interesting chapter in the film mainly because we're not really sure what reality is as Fogelman jumps around through time to finally get to the explanation.

Once that's revealed and another tragedy occurs, the next chapter jumps several decades ahead to when that couple's daughter (Olivia Cooke) is being raised by her long-widowed grandfather (Mandy Patinkin). In a bit that occasionally starts to get both tiresome and irksome, a narrator sets the stage and explains character traits rather than allow us to witness them on our own. Meaning, in this case, that we're told that our new protagonist who may or may not be the hero of the overall story, is angry and confused due to fate not giving her a great start in life.

In a bit that turns out be another fake out, she spots a boy on a bus waving to her that leads to the third chapter where an olive picker (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) in Spain gets a promotion from his boss (Antonio Banderas) after a long bit of back-story on the latter's part. That allows the simple but proud man to marry his sweetheart (Laia Costa) and have that boy (Adrian Marrero) teased at the end of the second chapter. But things don't work out as planned for Javier, and believing that his son might be drawn more to his boss than him as a father figure, he takes the family to New York. The rest, well, won't be much of a surprise to viewers.

The fourth chapter then follows that boy who's now about to head off to college as a young man (Alex Monner) where another twist of fate (and how life -- and people -- can be cruel) results in him going out for a jog where he runs into...well, you'll probably also predict that long before it happens. And for a film about the unpredictability of life, the fact that it's fairly easy to figure out how these characters and their stories connect long before it's revealed ends up being somewhat of a disappointment.

As does the constant narration that breaks the cardinal screenwriting rule of "show don't tell" when it comes to storytelling, as well as the various fake-out moments that end up threatening to distract the viewer too much by making them anticipate where the next one will occur.

Even so, the performances are good across the board, the cinematography is often gorgeous, and there are some fun and creative directorial touches scattered throughout. And the various stories on their own are often compelling and well-done. But in terms of creating a cohesive overall picture, Fogelman somewhat feels like he's trying to do too much and in too much of an obvious way.

Just imagine, though, if someone many degrees of separation from the filmmaker did something that ultimately resulted in him showing a bit more restraint and having more faith in the material. The result might have been glorious. So, there are some positives to be had, but the negatives ultimately outweigh them and thus "Life Itself" scores just a 4.5 out of 10.




Reviewed September 13, 2018 / Posted September 21, 2018


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