Hallmark sentimentality, passionate defenses of Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind” and horrific head traumas are thrown together in Dan Fogelman’s “Life Itself ,” a curious cocktail of a movie from the “This is Us” creator about all of life’s highest highs and lowest lows across generations and continents. Fogelman has seemingly never met an extreme emotion he doesn’t want to exploit, and “Life Itself” might be the apex of that guiding principle.
For a movie in which the phrase “unreliable narrator” is repeated at least a dozen times, “Life Itself” is incredibly easy to spoil and oddly difficult to tease. It starts over several times, it lies, it backtracks, it misleads and surprises all in service of trying to hammer in the thesis that “life is the unreliable narrator.” Life may be unreliable, sure, but movies sure as heck don’t have to be to prove the point and this cynical device does not serve the earnest story he’s attempting to tell. Nor does all the head trauma.
If there is a beginning, it’s with Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), who are apart in the present, but not too long ago were married, living in New York, extremely pregnant and spending long mornings in bed cooing at each other under white linens and discussing that 1997 Dylan album. Will is doing so poorly with the separation that he’s taken up screenwriting and berating baristas while pouring alcohol into his coffee at an hour when such behavior is generally frowned upon.
He tells his therapist, Dr. Morris (Annette Bening), about Abby and how in love, or, more accurately, how obsessed he was with her. She’s beautiful, nurturing, and will eat everything the sushi chef puts in front of her, “Even the uni.” There are shades of “(500) Days of Summer” in this whole segment as they go from the fateful Halloween where they fell in love while dressed as Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace, back to Abby’s tragic childhood and up to dinner with the in-laws (Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart).
But then that part of the story ends, quite abruptly, and we’re taken to Spain to meet some new people who are sort of cosmically linked to the New Yorkers. Spain is the stronger part of the movie, with a contained and compellingly written story of a simple farmer Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), his wife Isabel (Laia Costa), their son and the wealthy farm owner and landlord, Mr. Saccione (a very good Antonio Banderas who has a heck of a monologue about his mother and the Italian man she married). Yet even this reads as a little false, a little foreign and a little too conveniently cute and folksy to be fully believed and embraced.
In fact, nothing much in “Life Itself” feels like life itself. It is too polished, too winking, too big and too much to be all that relatable, even with a cast as appealing as this. Plus, Fogelman makes the odd choice to make nearly everything look present day, despite the fact that the story takes us through multiple generations.
As someone who has failed to be won over by “This is Us” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” which Fogelman wrote, I had come to believe that his worldview was for some people and not for others. Now I think “Life Itself” might be the thing that unites us.
“Life Itself,” an Amazon Studios release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use.” Running time: 118 minutes.