So far, early reviews of the new movie “Life Itself” have been tanking the movie. Some have even gone so far as to call it the “Worst Movie of 2018.” This is surprising because its writer/director, Dan Fogelman, is responsible for one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows on television right now, “This Is Us.”
“Life Itself” is definitely not perfect, but it is not as awful as most of the reviews would lead you to believe. The movie tells the generations-spanning story of a family. That story takes a lot of twists and turns, almost all ending in emotional tragedy. In many ways it is a more concise, more tragic version of “This Is Us.” But, it is told in a very different format.
The movie is split into five chapters, focused on the lives of different people. The hook, though, is the movie’s use of the literary device, the unreliable narrator. Most uses of unreliable narrators try to hide or disguise that the narrator is unreliable until some big reveal at the end. This movie reveals the device at the very beginning. In fact, the movie brings up the concept so many times you wonder how much of the film would be cut if you take out any time it repeats itself. Still, the film manages to continue surprising the viewer two hours later when the narrative remains unreliable.
The movie’s biggest flaw is that there are too many of these surprises. The plot twists start early on, which make it hard to summarize the film without spoiling it, and don’t let up for the almost two-hour run time of the movie. It barely goes 10 – 15 minutes without some big reveal or reversal of a scene. This gets pretty annoying towards the end, and almost ruins the attempt at a big heart-warming conclusion.
Many of them are unnecessary. For example, towards the end it is revealed that the movie we are watching is an illustration of a reading by an author at a bookstore. This reveal suddenly makes the entire framing and editing of the film makes sense. It would have been much easier to watch the movie with this knowledge up front, and it wouldn’t ruin any of the later plot points.
The film may be entitled “Life Itself,” which is sadly repeated ad nauseum, but there is a whole lot of death in this movie. Almost all of the characters that actually speak in this movie die, and the likelihood of them dying spikes if they are someone’s parent. It should get predictable and monotonous, but Fogelman somehow makes each loss feel like a tragic loss, especially that of the dog.
While the film is an emotional rollercoaster, it has some very funny moments too. The unreliable narrator is at times used as comedic relief and there are some funny lines built within more dramatic scenes.
“Life Itself” has an amazing ensemble cast. There are the stars: Annette Benning ( “American Beauty,” “The Kids Are Alright”), Mandy Patinkin (“Criminal Minds,” “The Princess Bride”), Olivia Wilde (“House,” “Tron: Legacy”), and Antonio Banderas (“Desperado,” “The Mask of Zorro”). And the more fresh faces like Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris Mencheta, and Laia Costa give strong emotional performances. The performances cover a wide emotional and tonal range throughout the film, and they never once cave into what could become an extremely cheesy or campy script.
If you are a fan of “This Is Us,” there is a big chance that you will enjoy this movie. It tugs at the same heartstrings as the story of the Pearson family, and uses a similar set up. If you are looking to just get into your feels, this is also a good movie to check out. It’s not necessarily “fine art,” but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad watch.