“I may not be equipped to be loved this much.”
Starting in one place and ending in another is nothing new for director Dan Fogelman. His ensemble piece Life Itself juggles the time jumps, the era changes, and the narrations quite well; however, mixed within the fluid transitions lies a story, and though this is a decent one, its lacking of finesse and clear beg for emotion prove that there is more to a film than tugging at the heartstrings.
The film begins with Samuel L. Jackson at the narration stand, walking us through a uniquely crafted opening montage that is quickly interrupted by Oscar Isaac’s Will, packing his bag and proclaiming that his short screenplay is dead upon arrival. It is this introduction that best introduces Will as we quickly discover his struggle with depression, his inability to function normally, and his longing to have Abby (Olivia Wilde) back.
It is at these moments, most noticeable all at the beginning, that Fogelman successfully captures the art of life, love, and loss. It is here that your heart reaches out to provide some level of comfort; some degree of understanding to those affected by the sudden absence of a loved one. Isaac effectively conveys a sense of raw emotion; of hurt and anger. Through his warm smile you see a dark and ominous glow, one that doesn’t understand itself any longer.
Had Fogelman continued on this trajectory, utilizing an unearthing sense of loss to stem authentic emotion, things would have been good for Life Itself. However, he decides to make things complicated. Instead of staying within the normal confines he initially creates, he decides to venture out to that of interwoven narratives.
The magic, present during the first session, doesn't last. Instead of working to create relatable characters Fogelman works to integrate the new style of storytelling, losing the film’s overall focus and becoming a cliché that sadly nullifies all the hard work done by Isaac and Wilde. That, in large part, is the main issue that rests within the story arcs of Life Itself.
While Fogelman's characters on TV have hours of episodes to tell their story, Life Itself finds itself confined to a single, two-hour stretch of time. You are no longer able to slowly uncover past demons, hidden skeletons, or huge surprises; there isn't time.
Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde do a brilliant job during the film's first act, as does Annette Bening in a painfully small role for the always reliable actress. However, the story is unable to take advantage of the momentum as the remaining characters are a bit too straight-laced and one dimensional to offer the same relatability. It’s a shame really - the film is overflowing with talent. However, given the source material, there was just no way to go.
I do credit Fogelman for the effort. Life Itself is no easy task. However, in the end, no amount of acting or narrative integration can salvage the simple fact that the overextended dramatics here don’t bear the same weight as they do on television. Sure many will cry, and others will find themselves in shock at the way everything comes together with seamless integration, but at the end of the day, we want characters that we care about; ones that we can root for. This group, while interesting, doesn't reach that mark, and that, in a nutshell, is why the film doesn’t work as it should.