Based on its ad campaign, you’d be forgiven for thinking Life Itself to be a saccharine romantic drama about the equally attractive Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde. But instead, the film devolves into a muddy five-part saga about interconnected lives around the world, jerking away from each story just as it threatens to become worthwhile. What the viewer is left with, then, is the curious sensation of having just watched a 90-minute prologue to something that they’re no longer interested in.
Like writer-director Dan Fogelman’s TV megahit This Is Us, Life Itself orients itself around a very pregnant, very much in love couple (played by Isaac and Wilde) and the story, years later, of their now-grown progeny (Olivia Cooke). Meanwhile, across the world, Antonio Banderas plays a captivating landowner in Andalusia who befriends the wife and young son of one of his employees in a saga that predictably collides with the first story.
What no doubt was an attempt at narrative ambition comes across as gimmicky, something about which the film itself is self-conscious. Characters call out cliched moments as “just like a movie!” and when a character’s college thesis articulates the central theme of the movie, the narrator is quick to point out that the thesis was a failure. But what might have been cutesy is instead just infuriating, a movie undercutting itself at every opportunity but still smugly satisfied with its own cleverness.
Do you know that movie cliché when a character is reminiscing about their dead wife or girlfriend, and they remember them in oversaturated morning light, beneath the covers, smiling? That scene is the full scope of Wilde’s character. She is a manic pixie dream girl minus all the modifiers. Here is the extent of what we learn about her character: She loves Bob Dylan, she and her boyfriend named their dog “F—face” (quirky!), and she and Isaac’s character met in college. It’s tempting, then, to criticize Life Itself for its shallow depictions of female characters if the film didn’t afford the same privilege to everyone in the cast. Every character gets a name and one anecdote. Any personality is thanks only to the nuanced work of actors who deserved better material.
So many tragedies befall the film’s extended family that it begins to feel capricious, like a mercurial god throwing darts at a board: car accident, mental collapse, suicide, cancer, dead dog (death by slow-cooker-related fire was already taken). The first sudden blow is shocking, but past the 40-minute mark, the film starts veering into the desperate. The final moments feature each character in a close-up, looking down, then looking up, toward the camera, perfect skin and symmetrical features glowing as a voice-over narrates self-evident platitudes. Add a logo at the end, and it would be a believable Coke commercial.
Excellent performers are wasted, especially the criminally underutilized Patinkin and Annette Bening, both of whom appear in just bit parts. With far too much confidence but nothing to say, Life Itself lives up to the college-freshman affectedness of its own title. C