How can life be unpredictable when we can see the ending of this movie coming from a mile away?
Life Itself is the latest project from Dan Fogelman, the creator and writer of the popular NBC series This is Us. Fogelman both directed and wrote Life Itself, which follows three different stories spanning a significant amount of time, and shows how the stories impact each other. One storyline follows a couple (played by Oscar Issac and Olivia Wilde), as they go from hooking up in college to trying to start a family. The second story involves a young girl (Olivia Cooke), who is trying to make it through life never having known her parents. And the third story follows the Gonzalez family living on an olive farm in Spain, as they go through their own life struggles.
As you can imagine, if you are familiar with This is Us, the movie goes through a number of twists and turns as Fogelman weaves the three stories together. This might work in a TV series that spans many hours, but here, with only a two-hour runtime, not enough time is dedicated to each of the three stories to allow viewers to become properly invested in any of them. In fact, it is not until the last third of the film (the story involving the Gonzalez family) that the movie finally starts to become engaging, but by that time, I was past the point of caring, even though I thought this part of the film was most effective.
Part of the problem is that Fogelman uses flashbacks to help tell each of these stories. This disjointed style of storytelling can usually work to help keep the plot twists a secret, but because the story in this film is too predictable, it comes off as aggravating. Perhaps if Fogelman just focused solely on the story involving the Gonzalez family, and incorporated parts of the other stories into a more linear narrative, instead of using flashbacks, the film would have been less predictable and more emotionally satisfying.
In addition to the lack of time given to each story, the film contains jarring tonal shifts. One scene will be over-the-top and comedic, only to be followed by a scene that is heartbreaking. Since these scenes are hard to become invested in, this juxtaposition comes off as awkward. The film surprisingly tries to gloss over these problems by breaking the fourth wall and dismissing them as plot devices and alternate realities. I did the exact same thing in a screenplay I submitted as my college thesis, and reading it again now, I realize it doesn’t work. Speaking of a college theses, the film focuses on the idea that “life is the most unreliable narrator,” an idea that Olivia Wilde’s character’s chooses as the subject of her college thesis; ironically, it is rejected.
Life Itself is a rather disappointing project from Fogelman. While there are certainly plenty of things to like in the film, including the acting and the more emotional scenes, the overall tone is too inconsistent, and its uplifting and inspirational message rings false. I personally have not seen This is Us (though my friends and family tell me nothing but good things about it), but I think even most fans of that show will have a hard time following this film, especially since the twists distract more than they surprise. I would rather stay at home and binge-watch This is Us in preparation for Season 3. In the end, life is not the most unreliable narrator; Life Itself is.
NOTE: Don’t think that I didn’t spot those delivery boxes from Amazon.com in a movie produced by Amazon films!
Amazon Studios will release Life Itself in theaters September 21, 2018.