Fans of the weepy TV show THIS IS US will probably be excited to learn that the series’ creator, Dan Fogelman, has a new movie out. Unfortunately, what might work on the little screen doesn’t always work on the big one.
LIFE ITSELF tells the saga of two families, one in New York City and the other in sun-drenched Spain, whose paths intersect twice over a 21-year period. In fact, the second intersection happens on the anniversary of the first. At this point, you’re supposed to say to yourself, “Isn’t life strange?” The story, which is divided into five chapters and labelled as such, begins in present-day Manhattan with Will (Oscar Isaac, ANNIHILATION; STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI; SUBURBICON; STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS; A MOST VIOLENT YEAR; EX MACHINA; INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS), who is on his way to see his therapist (Annette Bening, FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL) for some much-needed and, for some unexplained reason, court-mandated grief counselling. Will, we soon learn in a voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson who even plays himself in a cameo, lost his wife and the love of his life, Abby (Olivia Wilde, HER), six months earlier in rather tragic circumstances not long before she was due to give birth to their child. As Will recounts not just that day but also his college days with Abby, we are told by Jackson that both he and Will are unreliable narrators, a theme that pops up more than a few times in the first half of the film before it gets jettisoned once the setting moves to Spain. Just as we start to get to know Will, tragedy strikes again and we’re on to Chapter 2, which deals with Will and Abby’s daughter Dylan, who is named after Bob Dylan, because Abby loved his song, “To Make You Feel My Love”. We’re told that little tidbit many times too. Over the next few minutes we watch Dylan growing up in Will’s parents’ (played by Mandy Patinkin (TV’s HOMELAND) and Jean Smart (TV’s DESIGNING WOMEN)) home and we’re treated to a new unreliable narrator and even more tragedy, perhaps because Fogelman feels we haven’t cried enough over characters we know very little about. On Dylan’s 21st birthday, which is set in the future though we see nothing to indicate that, the action moves to an olive grove in Andalusia that is owned and operated by Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas, THE 33). One day, Saccione notices that one of his workers, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) seems to take extra care with his olives so he promotes the young man to foreman and provides him with free accommodation in his guest house. With that, Javier marries the love of his life, Isabelle (Laia Costa), and they live happily ever after until tragedy reaches their door as well, not once but twice. As Javier and Isabelle’s son, Rodrigo (Alex Monner), grows up over a matter of seconds, we know that his and Dylan’s fates will somehow cross.
Fogelman might be a pro at getting audiences to cry over the surprise and tragic deaths of characters that they get to know over a period of weeks, if not years, but here he’s asking for the impossible. These are people we barely know and barely care about. With one character’s death in particular, barely caring is an overstatement. In the end, all this death becomes pornographic, designed to maximise our tears. Guess what? It doesn’t work in the slightest. To compound the film’s problems, the two halves of the film are tonally out of sync with each other. Will and his family are quirky and brazen; the Spaniards, though they have their issues, are subdued, and their personalities are reflected in how their stories play out. Unfortunately, it’s cinematic equivalent of mixing oil with water. Fogelman tries to pull it off in the film’s final chapter but falls flat for many reasons least of which is the timeline issue. Rodrigo should be about six or seven years older than Dylan. Plus, there is no mention of the day when they find out that their paths had previously intersected. That would be a pretty important revelation to them, I would think.
Critics are nearly unanimous in their loathing of this film with one even calling it the worst film he’s seen this year. Audiences, however, are generally liking it. I’m solidly with my fellow critics on this one. It most definitely is one of the worst movies I’ve seen this year both for its mawkishness and its complete waste of an all-star cast. Its trailer is terribly misleading too. If there’s one good thing I can say about the film, it’s that Antonio Banderas is filmed in very nice light.
If you spend your time and money to see this film and you hate it, don’t come crying to me. You have been warned!
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Thursday, December 6th at 8:30 am HK time!
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