Life Itself review: For his sophomore feature, following up the acclaimed Danny Collins, Dan Fogelman heads into existential waters for Life Itself – a somewhat freewheeling story of love and life and all its unusual wonders and quirks.

Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Life Itself review

Broken up into several different chapters following two families over various time periods, all intertwining and having relevance to one another by the end, Fogelman’s film looks at love and life and how everything happens for a reason in the grand scheme of things. It’s an admirable idea that has flashes of brilliance but the thing is, it’s horribly convoluted. There is a myriad of characters that are important to the narrative but everyone is forgettable and as archetypal as characters in this sort of melodrama come. It’s so frustratingly paint-by-numbers and paper thin. And this is essentially what Life Itself boils down to; a mawkish screenplay that feels more like a rough assembly of a hodgepodge of ideas and threads than a cohesive, provocative narrative.

It almost feels like several different films in one – some better than others. The pieces just don’t quite fit with one another, like a puzzle with bits from other jigsaws that don’t quite mesh; there are certainly some great moments within this mess – namely the arc involving the Gonzalez family and starring Antonio Banderas which provides the proceedings with a healthy spoonful of authenticity and sentimentality – but these moments are fleeting and undercut by horrible contrivance, some atrocious dialogue and a plethora of overcooked emotional manipulation. The story in and of itself is sad; the thing is, none of the emotional beats feel earned or built up to well enough but given the fact we are watching characters go through some awful things, it’s never going to be a pleasant viewing experience. But be wary to mistake this for good, tear-jerking drama the likes of A Star is Born or Manchester By The Sea. It’s not. The writing falls flat in really grounding a lot of these moments and, again, undercuts them with comedy that never lands or absurdly placed monologues or scenes (for example, Oscar Isaac goes around singing in people’s faces at a Starbucks in the scene following something pretty tragic) which just feel mistimed.

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The performances are what keep this from totally falling apart; the likes of Isaac and Banderas do what they can with what they’re given and, in their defense, they go at it and take it head-on. The same can be said for the rest of the cast. Everyone certainly tries but the performances remain fairly uninteresting to watch because of how wooden the dialogue is; let’s not even dwell on the fact Fogelman wastes Mandy Patinkin, Annette Bening, and Olivia Cooke. Life Itself has its moments – it’s every so often funny and seems like it might come into its own through some decent threads – but, for the most part, it remains a convoluted, hollow and thin affair. What Fogelman is trying to do here is admirable but the way in which he goes about it is anything but. It might seem full of life at first but Life Itself is, sadly, and frustratingly, dead on arrival.

Life Itself review by Awais Irfan, October 2018.

Life Itself