** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Dan Fogelman
STARS Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde
Written and directed by This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, Life Itself is the sort of sprawling, multigenerational saga meant to make audiences laugh, cry, and nod approvingly at moments they might recognize from their own roller coaster lives. Unfortunately, a deep sigh and a dismissive shrug will be all that many folks will be able to muster.
The word out of the Toronto Film Festival was that this was a disaster on the order of the Hindenburg or the Titanic, and most of the reviews thus far have supported that narrative. That strikes me as overkill — if nothing else, Fogelman has at least attempted to make something personal and intimate, a welcome respite from such common and mechanical entertainment as The House with a Clock in Its Walls. It’s just a shame his reach exceeds his grasp.
Broken up into chapters, the film initially follows Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac) as he explains to a psychiatrist (Annette Bening) how the departure of his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) has totally destroyed him. Later chapters deal with a wealthy landowner (Antonio Banderas) in Spain, the loving couple who live on his property (Laia Costa and Sergio Peris-Mencheta), and, back in the US, a surly teenager (Olivia Cooke) dealing with the tragedies that life has constantly shoved in her face.
The thrust of the film is how the literary device of the “unreliable narrator” applies to life itself, since life is unreliable because it always throws us curveballs every step of the way. It’s a shame Fogelman didn’t apply this theory to the actual crafting of his screenplay, since it’s never less than an absolute certainty that all the pieces of the film will snap neatly — and predictably, and sometimes ridiculously — into place by the final fade-out.
On the plus side, the performances are exemplary, particularly those from Isaac and Costa. One’s mileage will vary, however, on Fogelman’s insistence on using pop-culture references to an excessive degree. Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind receives most of the lip service, but there are also copious nods to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. There’s even a recreation of the latter’s adrenaline-shot-to-the-heart scene — unfortunately, it’s not potent enough to bring the rest of the film back to life.