Written and directed by Dan Fogelman, creator of This Is Us, fans of the show might expect that the new movie, Life Itself, is a feature length film of the same family dynamic that they experience weekly on the much-loved drama. I’d argue that you’ll get nothing like that show but you will get way more than you bargained for.
Every other week, I talk about all things tv and movies on Stinger TV and Movie podcast with my co-host Shannon. And one thing we’ve both decided is that we’re NOT fans of This Is Us. It’s not that we don’t think it’s a good show. In fact, neither one of us has actually watched it. Well, that’s not exactly true.
Earlier this year after some big television event (maybe the Super Bowl? – which is a weird lead-in), I failed to change the channel before the infamous crockpot/fire/family dog episode came on. I watched maybe 15 minutes and turned it off, mainly uninterested because I wasn’t vested in any of the characters. Also, I don’t like Mandy Moore age prosthetics and emotional manipulation.
I did think, however, that I might be able to handle it in movie format. So off I went to attend a preview of Life Itself, starring Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, and a whole host of smaller actors. But I brought along a secret weapon… my mother.
My mother is a huge fan of This Is Us and has been telling me “Oh, you have to watch this show” ever since it started. No offense to my mom but typically if she loves a show, I know that I will not. But I thought she would provide a good balanced perspective when we went to see the movie. And oddly enough, we both walked away loving it as did much of the audience.
I normally don’t even look at any critical reviews until after I’ve written mine. I don’t want to be swayed into thinking a movie is better or worse than I thought it was just because a critic says it’s so. But this movie is getting panned. Actually, it’s worse than panned. What’s worse than panned… potted? Words like “worst film of 2018” and “emotional mugging” pepper these reviews but I just can’t bring myself to click. Because I absolutely loved the movie and I’m going to tell you why (although they may be the same reasons the critics hate it).
When we go to the theater, we typically expect to see the story in a movie told in a relatively linear fashion. Beginning, middle, end. There might be a few flash forwards or flashbacks but we keep track of who the characters are and ultimately how they’re connected.
This movie is told in chapters and each chapter is like a mini-movie unto itself. Chapter 1: The Hero is really the foundation of the story showing us the relationship of Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde). It’s a shockingly emotional and jumbled up timeline, because it’s coming from the shockingly emotional and jumbled up head of Will. We eventually move to the other chapters, including a sweeping love story told in the Spanish countryside. It seems disconnected as you’re watching it but you’re waiting for the story to fully arc, and it does.
While the movie runs under two hours, it’s a lot of story. It feels like it’s a three hour movie, not because it’s long and drags. It’s because you fit an incredible amount of story and characters into that time frame. And I never took my eyes off the screen. At times, I knew where the story was going and at times I didn’t, but I was happy to follow along and let it lead me where it wanted to go.
If you see Oscar Isaac only as Poe Dameron from the Star Wars movies, this film will change your mind. His performance absolutely blew me away. In fact, there wasn’t a weak performance in the entire film. It’s a dialogue heavy script given to long monologues but each actor keeps you hanging on their next word.
Okay, so if I had to criticize the film, it would be the cinematography. There are a lot of hand-held shaky camera shots and a lot of extreme close-ups. So much that I made note of it, which tells me it’s too much I get that these techniques were used to make us feel like part of the story, not just observers. But at times, it was a little distracting from the film.
Emotions, Emotions, Emotions
Some might argue that for a movie about Life Itself, it’s full of (SPOILER!) death. Yes, it is. There’s tragedy and death and you could simplify it all and call it the circle of life. In a more direct way, we’re taught that when life knocks you to your knees, you stand up and keep moving forward and you’ll find love and life to outweigh the tragedy.
So was I emotionally manipulated? Did I cry? Nope. And that doesn’t mean I have a heart of stone. There were some truly poignant moments that made me tear up but the real tears wanted to come at the end of the film when you felt the emotional enormity of the entire story.
This isn’t a movie for everyone. It’s not a rom-com. It’s not a dramedy. It’s a twisted slice of life that I hope will find its audience.