"an overly emotional melodrama which tries too hard to pull on the heartstrings"
Dan Fogelman has found success on TV with the hit family drama series This Is Us, which has just gone into its third season. It is emotional, sentimental and a tearjerker, so it is no surprise that Life Itself is very much the same, only much less effective.
The film is told in chapters showing how different people have been affected by one single tragic event. It begins with Will (Oscar Isaac) who is clearly struggling – he is self-medicating with pills and alcohol - and we learn in his therapy session with Dr. Cait Morris (Annette Bening) that he was recently institutionalised, having had a complete mental breakdown since his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) left him.
This is followed up by a chapter focussing on their daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) on the day she celebrates her 21st birthday. The action then moves from New York to Spain, where we meet landowner Vincent (Antonio Banderas) and the family that lives on his land - his worker Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), Javier’s wife Isabel (Laia Costa) and their son Rodrigo (multiple actors, primarily Alex Monner).
While the sentimentality in This Is Us is easy to take because it’s spread out across 20+ episodes in a season, in Life Itself, it is too much and too obvious being in feature film form. In This Is Us, there are plenty of dark, tragic events but they are matched by many sweet, happy moments. In Life Itself, it is just tragedy after tragedy and it becomes quite depressing. There is hardly any light or happiness, except in flashbacks which are designed to be like that to make the present-day tragedies seem even worse.
The screenplay just lays everything on too thick. There is no real nuance. For example, in Will and Abby’s story, Will is so completely in love with Abby in college in the flashbacks, and is so overwhelmed by his heartache and devastation in the present. This means Isaac is lumbered with some iffy lines, some of which are too sappy and sweet, the others too melodramatic. He really puts his all into it, but his performance feels overdone, but that’s probably the script’s fault.
The movie improves when it moves to Spain to meet the Gonzalez family, but then that eventually turns dark too. Their chapters were written better and felt slightly more realistic which is why that portion was more emotionally effective, and did succeed in making me cry. Inevitably the stories link up, and I could see how this was going to happen a mile away, which is a shame.
I really liked Wilde as she was natural, cool and a lot of fun, I enjoyed Mandy Patinkin as Will’s dad, he was a sweet character, but sadly, Cooke didn't get enough time to really delve into her character so just had to work with the troubled angry kid stereotype. Costa gave the film’s best performance and was the one who made me cry.
Life Itself is pure melodrama that tries too hard to pull on the heartstrings. What a shame.