Before the first of many, many time and space jumps strewn throughout Life Itself, I knew that writer and director Dan Fogelman’s ensemble drama was essentially going to be a feature-length version of his hit NBC show, This Is Us. And one doesn’t need to know beforehand that he wrote and directed Life Itself to quickly figure that out either. While Amazon Studios’ promotional campaign made the connection abundantly clear, I knew Life Itself was going to be a cinematic regurgitation of the same (or similar) emotional and narrative beats present in This Is Us because of Oscar Isaac’s coffee shop meltdown. It’s raw, unnerving and expertly performed by the actor. It also reeks of foreshadowing, even though the plot it foretells has technically already happened.
Life Itself is billed as a multigenerational story of love and loss that, for the most part, centers in on a young couple, Will (Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde). If told chronologically, the film would essentially follow the pair from their college courtship and its rocky continuation through marriage, children, and the many experiences that such a life implies. But like one of the This Is Us series premiere’s most famous twists, Will and Abby’s story is not a told sequentially. Nor, for that matter, is it a reliable one, for as Abby, Antonio Banderas’ Saccione, and other characters constantly remind us throughout, life itself is the ultimate unreliable narrator.
Also, instead of delving into the aforementioned “many experiences that such a life implies,” Life Itself quite literally, and repeatedly, dwells on one of the most significant events one can ever experience: death.
There is a lot of death in this movie, and the majority of it is random. I say this not to spoil the many ways Fogelman torments his characters and the moviegoers who watch them, but to point out that on more than one occasion, these moments reminded me of the Final Destination franchise, a series of popular supernatural slasher films from the 2000s. While Life Itself doesn’t make frequent use of Rube Goldberg death machines to kill off its characters, the randomness and suddenness of it all is strikingly familiar.
The second of the big This Is Us plot twists that also pops up in Life Itself is the surprise family relation. Yes, Abby and Will’s story takes up a sizable chunk of the story, but they aren’t the only players in this game. Hell, their setting in New York City isn’t even the only major place that Fogelman places his ensemble. Jean Smart and Mandy Patinkin play Will’s parents, and Annette Bening plays his therapist. Across the Atlantic, we find Banderas’ character, as well as Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, and Àlex Monner. Olivia Cooke also plays an important role, and—no joke—Samuel L. Jackson narrates it all.
The Life Itself ensemble is as wide and varied as the story’s geographical locations and plot twists, but that doesn’t mean the cast assembled here isn’t working hard. Isaac and Wilde do much of the heavy-lifting and it shows, especially whenever the pair is on screen together. On his own, the Star Wars actor also proves again and again just how good he is, especially during some of the film’s heaviest moments.
Unfortunately, a few great performances and a generally wonderful ensemble aren’t enough to make up for the fact that, more than anything, Fogelman’s latest is just another example of what his popular television drama has been for two seasons (and will be for its upcoming third season). That is to say, a commercially viable form of tragedy porn. The stories underpinning Life Itself hinge on out-of-the-blue familial connections and strikingly sudden deaths, accidental and otherwise, that affect those separated from them by great distances as much as those who were in the immediate vicinity. Like with This Is Us, Fogelman takes great care in driving these plot points into the audience’s brains as forcefully as possible, so much that it becomes impossible not to shed at least a few tears over the trauma endured.
That’s not to say that some people won’t enjoy a movie like Life Itself. Millions of people regularly tune in to watch This Is Us, and they’re going to keep watching it until Fogelman and his team finally run out of steam. The target audience, however, seems to have plenty of tears to shed, and this movie is more than willing to manipulate them into shedding them over the course of its nearly two-hour runtime. As for me, I’d much rather revisit Final Destination.
Life Itself is tearing up theaters now.