A movie can be absorbing or significant because of its craft, its ambitions, or what its appearance at a certain point in time may augur, even if it doesn’t fully cohere or completely satisfy. Call it a mixed bag, a near miss, or a guilty pleasure, but sometimes the flaws throw into greater relief the qualities that make a film striking. Life Itself is writer-director Dan Fogelman’s second indie feature, following the Al Pacino vehicle Danny Collins (2015), which had its admirers but was a box office disappointment. These days the filmmaker is much better known as the creator and producer of the critically lauded award-winning NBC series This Is Us, to which Life Itself will inevitably be compared.
The film’s distributor, Amazon Studios, is counting on that, scheduling the movie’s theatrical opening to coincide with the season-three premiere of This Is Us, a strategy that—as the lines between traditional TV, cable, DVD, online streaming, and multiplex releases continue to blur—makes Life Itself an intriguing blip in the media’s ongoing paradigm shift. The basic similarities between Fogelman’s movie and his TV show are that both are intersecting, multigenerational tales about love and family that span decades and rely on plot twists, close-ups, and, in lieu of nudity, copious amounts of naked emotion to hook the viewer.
Beyond their greatly disparate running times, the most visible difference between this movie and its prime-time soap-opera cousin is that Life Itself has an A-list, Oscar-bait cast of genuine movie stars, who Amazon—showing how seriously it wants to compete with Hollywood—trotted out on the awards-season red carpet this month at the Toronto International Film Festival. But for all its talent and handsome production values, the movie doesn’t operate the way the immensely popular This Is Us does, and that’s largely due to how the viewer consumes each product. Binge-watching (which is how many of us today watch episodic TV) allows for a long, unbroken period of immersion in the material, often in one’s home, but commercial movies tend to be around two hours long and usually still require a trip to a theater. The effects of the film medium tend to be iconic, whereas the effects of broadcast/cable/streaming TV media often resonate on more intimate, personal levels. Audiences may adore movie stars, but they tend to regard TV performers as more their own.
Without the luxury that This Is Us has of hours upon hours in which to explore the complex relationships and events in the lives of its blended family, the Pearsons, Life Itself intertwines the fates of its two families, the Dempseys and the Gonzalezes, through the devices of successive chapters and shifting genres. Chapter One is a feat of breathtaking virtuosity, a very meta and dark homage to Quentin Tarantino’s neo noir Pulp Fiction, complete with a cameo by Samuel L. Jackson, who also narrates (for a while). We meet depressed New York writer Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac), who’s seeing a psychiatrist (Annette Bening) after a breakdown triggered six months earlier by the departure of his wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde). For the first time he’s actually able to open up enough to talk about his ex, and we follow their courtship and marriage through flashbacks that Will narrates as he gradually reveals the mystery surrounding Abby. There are happy memories: her fondness for Bob Dylan’s music; the couple’s hope to write a Tarantino-esque screenplay; and Abby’s college thesis in literature, about the ultimate unreliable narrator, which she posits is life itself. But they’re overshadowed by the bad times, which involve addiction, abuse, tragedy, and death—lots of death, mostly violent.
In Chapter Two we meet the Dempseys’ daughter, Dylan, a precocious youngster who grows into a 21-year-old punk musician (Olivia Cooke) whose default mode is anger. Minus the plot twists and reversals that make Chapter One so riveting, this second part is dull by comparison, and the thematic concept of the “unreliable narrator” echoes only in the prevarications of Dylan and her protective grandfather (Mandy Patinkin). As genre, this dreary coming-of-age section doesn’t mesh well with either the preceding chapter, or the next, which is a dazzler.
Chapter Three abruptly changes the movie’s locations and languages, from Manhattan and English to Andalusia and Spanish; switches the genre to melodrama; and goes decades back in time. The setting is an olive plantation owned by the handsome, very wealthy Señor Saccione (Antonio Banderas), who is haunted by a traumatic past. His friendly overtures toward his best worker, Javier Gonzalez (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), are rebuffed until years later, when Javier; his wife, Isabel (Laia Costa); and young son, Rodrigo (Adrian Marrero), will require his help. The high-caliber screenwriting of this chapter is melancholy, playful, romantic, and allusive, and Banderas inhabits one of the most nuanced roles in his career, on a par with some of his earlier work with Pedro Almodóvar.
Chapter Four continues the Gonzalez family story, with Rodrigo now a young man (Alex Monner) headed to New York University. There he becomes involved with one of the movie’s most unreliable narrators, a chatterbox coed (Isabel Durant) who, in the film’s funniest scene, tells the biggest whopper of all.
To the extent that Life Itself works, it’s because the film transcends its obvious affinities with the lachrymose This Is Us and harks back to a purely cinematic form, the omnibus—or anthology, or portmanteau—film. An omnibus movie is composed of linked vignettes, which can either stem from one location or event, be a variation on a theme, feature the same actors playing different roles in different stories, or be written and directed by different filmmakers. There is a unity among the disparities, although it’s a tricky format: witness Paris, Je T’aime (2006), where some vignettes are clearly not equal to others. And although Fogelman can be applauded for his daring, in his effort to link his stories to the one point where the Dempsey and Gonzalez family sagas first intersect, he makes a glaring mistake in chronology that almost tanks the movie. But rarely in American films do we get to see emotions so raw and characters who are so indelibly conflicted, so warm and yet utterly fallible. I’ve seen Life Itself twice already, and I may even watch it a third time someday, not because it’s perfect—it isn’t—but because just as with my own life, I like to revisit the high points. v