Dir.: Dan Fogelman; Cast: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Laila Costa, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Annette Benning, Samuel L. Jackson, Olivia Cooke, Alex Monner, Mandy Patinkin; USA 2018, 118 min.
Universally panned after its TIFF premiere in September, director/writer Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself is a study in loss, told in five chapters under the headline “Unreliable Narrator”. Often grandstanding and a little too verbose, Fogelman has nevertheless tried something different – and does not deserve the contempt from the newspapers that reward every Super-Hero feature with five stars.
Samuel L. Jackson is the unreliable narrator number one. He tells us that Will (Isaac) is seeing his shrink (Bening) due to his wife Abby (Wilde) leaving him. After Bening is killed off by a bus, Jackson bids us good-bye leaving us in the hands of a more reliable, female narrator whose identity will be disclosed in chapter five. We now learn the truth. It was really pregnant Abby who was run over by that bus, but not before giving birth to daughter Dylan. Anyhow, Instead of looking after his daughter Will commits suicide, leaving Dylan in the care of her grandfather (Patimkin) – grandmother and pet dog making an equally swift exit. No wonder why Abby behaves rather aggressively in Chapter 2. For the next instalment we switch to Spain where farmhand Javier (Peris-Mencheta) marries the beautiful Isabella (Costa). The couple have a son, Rodrigo, whom the family takes to New York for a holiday which ends in tragedy. Trauma follows, and Javier’s boss Saccione (Banderas), who has always lusted after Isabella, pays for Rodrigo’s psychiatric treatment and Javier leaves. We should mention that fatal illness rears its head in this ch apter, whilst Rodrigo goes to study in New York and meets – you’ve guessed it. The final instalment reveals the identity of the narrator, putting all lose ends together.
The whole idea is far better than the execution, and the literary comparisons don’t always work. Still, there are moments of emotional bravado, and the ensemble acting is brilliant. DoP Brett Pawlak tries to undercut the rollercoaster of sentiments with muted colours, few close ups and panning panorama shots. All in all, Fogelman has bitten off more than he can chew, his skills are obviously too limited to do his concept justice, but the overall effect makes it – just – a better than average proposition. AS
Life Itself is released in cinemas and Sky Cinema on 4 January 2019