In a cinematic landscape increasingly dominated by effects-driven spectacles, Hollywood doesn’t seem to make tearjerker films anymore — movies like “Brian’s Song,” “Love Story” and “Titanic” that pack an emotional wallop rooted in characters that viewers care about deeply. But writer-director Dan Fogelman has been filling that gap weekly on television for the past two seasons with the smash hit NBC series “This Is Us.”
Now he’s hitting the multiplex with “Life Itself,” which is guaranteed to make viewers cry their eyes out for two hours while counting their blessings and reconsidering their life choices. Told in five different book-like chapters that each follow a different character while leaping among time frames and countries and inventive narration techniques to boot, Fogelman keeps viewers on their toes throughout as he finds fascinating ways to bring the seemingly disparate tales together.
The movie opens with Samuel L. Jackson narrating as himself, dropping MF-bombs galore as usual, while telling the story of a guy named Will (Oscar Isaac in a superb performance) and his therapist (Annette Bening), who is trying to help him process a tragedy that has left him emotionally shaken and a hopeless alcoholic. Just when the viewer is drawn into their intense interpersonal dynamic, the session ends, the therapist heads home through busy New York streets and then is killed by a bus in the first of several utterly jarring moments throughout the film.
The camera cuts to Jackson in the crowd of onlookers, and he throws his hands up in the air saying he can’t handle the shock and literally walks off the screen and out of the movie. A female voice takes over for the rest of the film, but Fogelman has managed to knock viewers on their heels, making t hem realize that anything can happen in this tale.
Thus the concept of the unreliable narrator is applied, in which viewers have to consider that the story is told from an individual perspective rather than objective reality. In a flashback to Will and Abby’s early days of romance in college, she posits that life itself is an unreliable narrator in anyone’s story — that the constant possibility of surprise that everyday life can provide at any moment can alter our entire life trajectory.
Will and Abby are the center of the film’s first chapter, which unfolds between Will’s destructive behavior in the present and the dawn of love and hope that brought them together and formed their marriage and her pregnancy. But when two tragedies strike, the story jumps to follow the life of their daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke), who winds up raised by her doting grandfather Irwin (Mandy Patinkin) and turns out an embittered 21-year-old shrieking punk versions of classic love songs in dingy clubs.
Meanwhile, the story leaps to Spain to follow the story of an olive picker named Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) who is madly in love with his wife Isabel (Laia Costa) and awaiting the birth of his son Rigo (Alex Monner). When his boss Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas) puts him in charge of the pickers and enables him and his family to move into a beautiful house on the farm for free, life seems to be perfect — until unexpected circumstances make him feel he has to step out of their lives in order to keep them safe and secure.
It’s hard to reveal much more about the plot of “Life Itself” without ruining its tremendous impact. Every one of the stories draws viewers into the characters’ lives, then delivers a stunning blow, before ultimately interweaving the tales together in a way that is not only brilliant but profoundly uplifting.
This is a gentle film between the shocking moments, filled with detailed characters, emotional nuances and great performances. These are all qualities in short supply in today’s film marketplace, where the more human stories are often also subjected to Oscar-seeking bombast with self-important themes rather than simply giving us people to care about and relate with.
Lest this kind of description makes it sound like a Hallmark TV movie, be aware that the opening story of Will has a ton of foul language in it — more than you’ll find in most R-rated movies outside of a Scorsese Mafia film, although it fits in the context of Will’s drunk and traumatized emotional state, and the rest of the movie has much less profanity. And the plot twists were shocking enough to make me gasp loudly each time, to the point that my fellow critics turned to see if I was OK.
I say that is a good thing. This movie made me feel the full range of human emotions, all in the space of two hours, and left me contemplating who and what people and circumstances affect me personally in my own life. It should do the same for anyone else who settles in for a viewing.
“Life Itself” Grade: A