Director Dan Fogelman’s romantic drama Life Itself is well-intentioned and tries to do a lot but in the end it comes out a little bit messy and a lot contrived. Fogelman’s choice to compartmentalise the film into chapters doesn’t help the flow but it also attempts to mitigate the effect by having a strong connection between these chapters. Whilst this works on paper, when it comes to the big screen it ends up being a bit forced.
That being said, Life Itself does do some interesting things and managed to evoke no small amount of emotion out of me in places. Utilising the performances of a raft of star names – and some lesser known, but no less capable actors – the story unfolds across different times and regions. Dealing in the most part with the topic of loss but prefixing it with no small amount of love, it does attempt unashamedly to pluck at those heart-strings.
However, the structure of Life Itself didn’t work as it left it feeling disjointed and clunky as it attempted to bring these disparate stories together by any means necessary. Some laughs were had as the jokes landed as intended and also some collective intakes of breath as events unfold and play out from multiple viewpoints, giving a little more context to the initial scenes. Splitting up the film into distinct chapters doesn’t allow for the performances of a singular actor to shine but Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde in the first chapter are interesting and relatable and were a really good pairing. Olivia Cooke gets a brief appearance and is a force of nature but is seen too little to really make her mark. The same with Antonio Banderas as he comes and goes throughout the section he relates to.
Life Itself is the opposite of bittersweet, whatever that word is. It isn’t a happy story tinged with sadness, but a sad story tinged with sparks of happiness. Life Itself is primarily about death and is peppered with some highlights of life and love. The schmaltzy finale does not add anything to the story and, while I can understand why it has been put there, it certainly does not carry the weight of the previous chapters and ends up coming across as a bit twee.
With a runtime of 117 minutes, it does drag out a little bit and if the last chapter was cut out entirely, it would bring it down to a more reasonable 90-100 minutes; and it would feel all the better for it. It should be a culmination of all that has gone before but it ends up being throw-away and hackneyed.
Olivia Wilde’s Abby Dempsey writes her thesis at college on the unreliable narrator, the idea that every story ever told is the construct of someone else’s imagination and therefore not to be entirely trusted. The only way around this is to experience the event first hand. This is the most interesting part of the whole film and, at the same time, the thing that is undermining what Life Itself is trying to do. As the message for a film to try to get across it seems strange to highlight something that undoes everything that has gone on beforehand.