All movies are manipulative. It’s their job to nudge us toward some sensation we weren’t expecting. But once in a while a film jets right past the boundaries of artfully contrived tearjerking into a kind of blunt hostage taking. Life Itself, written and directed by Dan Fogelman, the master manipulator behind television’s This Is Us, is so perversely jaw-dropping in its attempts to extort feelings out of us that it could almost be a black comedy. But no, this one is playing it straight.
Life Itself tells the stories of a carousel of characters and the interlocking tragedies that befall them. Olivia Wilde and Oscar Isaac are adorably canoodling newlyweds expecting their first child. Olivia Cooke is a crabby faux punk who channels her painful past into horrible music. There’s a rich Spanish country gent (Antonio Banderas) who intrudes on the lives of the salt-of-the-earth couple (Sergio Peris-Mencheta and Laia Costa) who live on his property. There’s also a therapist, Annette Bening, charged with the thankless task of healing the pileup of wounds this screenplay inflicts on these characters.
People being smacked by buses, children witnessing the death of parents, suicide born of deep despair–and don’t forget cancer. It’s all there in Life Itself, including references to incest and murdered puppies. We don’t actually see all of these things: Life Itself is a model of super discreet editing, and a largely unseen narrator catalogs some of the worst horrors in a way that allows us to remain comfortably detached. Welcome to the cozy zone of human tragedy: you’ll feel bad, but not too bad, and you’ll go home with so many bromides that you’ll have to rent a storage space to house them all.
The premise of Life Itself–that beauty and happiness can, and often does, spring from tragedy–isn’t so bad. But Fogelman’s approach–to throw one Velcro catastrophe after another at his target, us, figuring that something’s got to stick–might work better in short, episodic bursts than it does in a full-length movie. What hurts the most is the wholehearted dedication each of these actors brings to such truly horrendous material: they make Life Itself almost watchable–almost–but there’s no effective cure for this kidney stone of a movie. Please, please, just let it pass.
This appears in the October 01, 2018 issue of TIME.
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