Review: Life Itself

PLOT: Fate intertwines the destiny of a couple in New York (Oscar Isaac & Olivia Wilde), a young woman (Olivia Cooke) growing up a generation later, a Spanish landowner (Antonio Banderas), a couple working for him (Laia Costa & Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and their son (Alex Monner).

REVIEW: LIFE ITSELF was one of the most talked-about movies amongst critics at this year’s TIFF, but not for a good reason. Rather, people whispered among themselves how bad this formerly buzzy drama turned out, despite being directed by the much-ballyhooed Dan Fogelman, the man behind “This is Us”.

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Clearly aiming to tug at the heartstrings, with the studio even giving out packets of Kleenex before the screening, LIFE ITSELF is like Nicholas Sparks on steroids. Designed to wring maximum sentimentality out of every situation, this is absolutely relentless in how much it tries to manipulate the audience, right from the early passage setting up Oscar Isaac as a suicidal man in New York reeling from a broken relationship. But, as in the rest of the film, he’s set-up as an unreliable narrator, so what’s really going on?

While the first act (or rather chapter) leans heavily on twist after twist, the majority of LIFE ITSELF is a sprawling romantic melodrama that takes us from New York to the lush olive groves of Spain and back again. Peppered with many monologues, so many that the movie must have been catnip to actors looking to stretch their muscles, LIFE ITSELF is an unwieldy mess.

Fogelman’s made a lovely looking movie and cast it well, but the mawkish, manipulative attempts to tug at the heartstrings never work. In fact, you’ll likely be rolling your eyes at each unfettered declaration of love, such as an early, stalker-ish exchange between Wilde and Isaac that I guess is OK because he’s handsome.

The movie hinges on Wilde and Isaac’s love, but to see them together you get a sense of this idealized, only in Hollywood relationship that’s hard to invest in. Both are charming, but the dialogue they have to spout at each other is ridiculous, especially a lengthy conversation they have about Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind”, which becomes central to the plot.

The fact that you aren’t able to invest in them sinks the film, even if they’re off-screen the next seventy or so minutes. It doesn’t get much better once they get to Spain and Antonio Banderas comes in as a talkative Olive Grove owner who likes to tell his life story to whoever will listen, and takes a liking to his foreman’s wife and son. The one positive thing I can say is that at least Banderas doesn’t go down a familiar road, where the rich guy is predictably bad. Here, he starts off as a sweet guy and remains that way.

His performance was probably the only one that won me over, with actors like Mandy Patinkin, Annette Bening and Olivia Cooke trying hard to convey some real heartache. They’re too good for the movie. Suffice to say, LIFE ITSELF is something of a train wreck. While I’m sure some audiences will like it (hey – people cried at the COLLATERAL BEAUTY screening I attended too), more cynical folks, or anyone not in love with Fogelman’s TV work, should skip this one altogether. It’s a dud.