A film that exalts the beauty of love, marriage, and pregnancy all in one seems hard to find in Hollywood
In a cinematic landscape increasingly dominated by effects-driven spectacles, Hollywood doesn’t seem to make tearjerker films anymore — movies like “Brian’s Song,” “Love Story,” and “Titanic” that pack an emotional wallop rooted in characters that viewers care about deeply. But writer-director Dan Fogelman has been filling that gap weekly on television for the past two seasons with the smash hit NBC series “This Is Us.”
Now he’s hitting the multiplex with “Life Itself,” which may well cause viewers to cry their eyes out for two hours while counting their blessings and reconsidering their life choices. Told in five different book-like chapters that each follow a different character while leaping among time frames and countries and inventive narration techniques to boot, Fogelman keeps viewers on their toes throughout as he finds fascinating ways to bring the seemingly disparate tales together.
The movie opens with Samuel L. Jackson narrating as himself, dropping MF-bombs galore as usual, while telling the story of a guy named Will (Oscar Isaac in a superb performance) and his therapist (Annette Bening), who is trying to help him process a tragedy that has left him emotionally shaken and a hopeless alcoholic.
Just when the viewer is drawn into their intense interpersonal dynamic, the session ends, the therapist heads home through busy New York streets and then is killed by a bus in the first of several utterly jarring moments throughout the film.
The camera cuts to Jackson in the crowd of onlookers, and he throws his hands up in the air saying he can’t handle the shock and literally walks off the screen and out of the movie. A female voice takes over for the rest of the film, but Fogelman has managed to knock viewers on their heels, making them realize that anything can happen in this tale.
Will and Abby (Olivia Wilde) are the center of the film’s first chapter, which unfolds between Will’s destructive behavior in the present and the dawn of love and hope that brought them together and formed their marriage and her pregnancy. But when two tragedies strike, the story jumps to follow the life of their daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke), who winds up being raised by her doting grandfather Irwin (Mandy Patinkin) and turns out an embittered 21-year-old shrieking punk versions of classic love songs in dingy clubs.
Meanwhile, the story leaps to Spain to follow the story of an olive picker named Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) who is madly in love with his wife Isabel (Laia Costa) and awaiting the birth of his son Rigo (Alex Monner). When his boss Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas) puts him in charge of the pickers and enables him and his family to move into a beautiful house on the farm for free, life seems to be perfect — until unexpected circumstances make him feel he has to step out of their lives in order to keep them safe and secure.
It’s hard to reveal much more about the plot of “Life Itself” without ruining its tremendous impact. Every one of the stories draws viewers in tensely into the characters’ lives, then delivers a stunning blow, before ultimately interweaving the tales together in a way that is not only brilliant but profoundly uplifting.
The movie exudes an undeniable love for marriage and family, and the beauty of pregnancy, throughout its stories. There is also an interesting sequence in which a young woman tells her boyfriend she’s pregnant and far too blithely says that abortion is an easy option for them to follow.
When the boyfriend looks shocked at her callow consideration of abortion, the nominally Jewish woman asks if he’s offended by the idea as a Christian. Still in shock, he doesn’t answer.
But when she reveals that her story has all been an April Fool’s joke, it is clear that writer-director Fogelman and the boyfriend regard her with horror, and the boyfriend instantly breaks up with her. Combined with the fact that the young man is eventually revealed to have married another woman and had many children and grandchildren, this seems to be a very clear takedown of the low regard pro-abortion women have for the lives of the unborn.
“Life Itself” is a gentle film between the shocking moments, filled with detailed characters, emotional nuances and great performances. These are all qualities in short supply in today’s film marketplace, where the more human stories are often also subjected to Oscar-seeking bombast with self-important themes rather than simply giving us people to care about and relate with.
Lest this kind of description makes it sound like a Hallmark TV movie, be aware that the opening story of Will has a ton of foul language in it — more than you’ll find in most R-rated movies outside of a Scorsese Mafia film, although it fits somewhat in the context of Will’s drunk and traumatized emotional state, and the rest of the movie has much less profanity. And a few plot twists are shocking enough to be gasp-inducing.
Inducing such strong emotional responses is a good thing, as “Life Itself” makes viewers feel the full range of human emotions, all in the space of two hours, and should leave them contemplating the people and circumstances that affect them personally in their own lives.
Start your day with Always Forward, our award-winning e-newsletter. Get this smart, handpicked selection of the day’s top news, analysis and opinion, delivered to your inbox. Sign up absolutely free today!