Whatever your opinion is on the NBC hit show This Is Us there’s no denying that Dan Fogelman simply understands human interaction. The This Is Us creator, and writer of the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love brings us yet another heartfelt look at the human connection and relationships with Life Itself. As Fogelman mentioned in the post-screening Q&A, Life Itself is a deeply personal film in which the writer/director clearly wears his heart on his sleeve. He presents the notion that our life story is an unreliable narrator, made abundantly clear by one hell of an opening that’s insanely jarring, yet weirdly effective. Fogelman then goes on to convey that life’s story unfolds in unpredictable ways (citing how he met his wife as an inspiration). It can be both excruciatingly difficult and joyfully upbeat, but every event leads to something new. It’s a heartfelt message that some will be moved by, even if it is a bit spoon-fed, and others will find contrived, but regardless Fogelman puts it all out there with great sincerity.
Life Itself tells the story of multiple couples over generations that find their lives intertwined by a single event. A New York husband and wife (Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde) who have been together since their days at frat parties, find themselves nervously preparing to welcome a newborn baby girl into the world. At the same time, a husband and father (Sergio Paris-Mencheta) in Spain accepts a promotion on his boss’s (Antonio Banderas) Olive Plantation that results in his family moving to a new home on site. While he spends his day in the fields, his wife (Laia Costa) and son (Alex Monner) begin to develop a bond with the plantation owner. Through their experiences, both couples and their children have their life stories unfold throughout Dan Fogelman’s narrative as we the audience experience the ups and downs.
Fogelman is able to weave all of these storylines together in a satisfying way, but not without stumbling a bit. He takes some wildly creative and abrasive risks in regards to storytelling for the first half that will leave audiences split. I, however, couldn’t help but find it to be one of the more engaging segments of the film. It features an excellently charismatic Oscar Isaac who I couldn’t get enough of and even channels a bit of Eternal Sunshine mixed with A Christmas Carol (like I said, a bit odd). His relationship with Olivia Wilde is quite charming but very human, and as the film further explores that relationship, we begin to have a better understanding of not just Isaac’s perspective, but Wilde’s as well painting a full picture. I was lapping up most everything about the first half, but then the film suddenly crosses over into familiar storytelling territory for Fogelman as the focus shifts to a family in Spain. This shift in focus is rather uneven and doesn’t carry over any of the previous stylistic choices he had spent implementing in the first half. Even though I understand what Fogelman was going for, I couldn’t help but feel Life would’ve worked better with one consistent form of storytelling. Speaking of the second half, even though I preferred the out of the box creativity, the second half is truly where the story is most effective.
We must give credit where credit is due, almost all the scenes set in Spain are spoken entirely in Spanish adding to the cultural authenticity. This is especially true during two impressive monologues given by Antonio Banderas and Laos Costa who are the clear standout of this segment. But what this portion of the film excels in is conveying a simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking tale of a young boy’s upbringing. He is the legacy his parents leave behind and will carry on their story long after they are gone. This sentiment is echoed throughout the entire film, but Fogelman especially nails it here.
Life Itself ultimately concludes on a cheesy over explained note but is nevertheless heartfelt in its intentions. I applaud Dan Fogelman for his ambitious attempt at honoring the key events and people of his life, even if the result is clunky along the way.
Toronto International Film Festival Review: Life Itself
Production Companies: Amazon Studios, FilmNation Entertainment, Temple Hill Entertainment
Director: Dan Fogelman
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening
Rated R, 117 Min
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