Life Itself (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Dan Fogelman, US/Spain, 2018, 117 mins, in English and Spanish with subtitles

Cast:  Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas

Review by Carol Allen


Writer/director Dan Fogelman found a very effective way of telling a story simultaneously in two timelines in his popular television series This is Us, and he gets even more adventurous in this in terms of using unusual and sometimes challenging storytelling techniques. 

His intriguing thesis is that each person is the hero of their own story but life itself is the unreliable narrator of same, which intermeshes and amends those individual tales.   Fogelman is also, as we already know from This is Us, really in love with the idea of family, which he continues to explore here.

The first chapter as it were deals with the courtship and marriage of young New York couple Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), as they await the birth of their first child.  The opening scene is more than a touch confusing and the over complicated structure of the section, which jumps around in time, is not immediately engaging, as we discover the story of their love through flashbacks in the mind of a devastated and depressed Will, who is seeing a psychiatrist (Annette Bening) after Abby has left him.  All does eventually become clear though with a huge, unexpected shock at the end of that chapter.  And Isaac and Wilde are beautiful together. She in particular is charismatic.

The film then goes on to show how Will and Abby’s story relates to and affects the lives of others in often convoluted ways.  Most directly is that of their now rebellious and confused daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke), who is being raised by Will’s father Irwin (a lovely, warm performance from Mandy Patinkin).  It is a well drawn relationship, in which Fogelman pulls another of his narrative tricks – the difference between what we say to each other and what we really mean.

The last group of characters appear at first to be totally unrelated to what has gone before as we move to Spain and the comparatively straightforward telling of the story of wealthy but lonely landowner Mr. Saccione, played by a now ageing but still charismatic Antonio Banderas and his relationship with his employee Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), Javier’s wife Bella (Laia Costa) and their son (Adrian Marrero).   The telling of this section is comparatively straightforward, until Javier finances a holiday to New York for them, when the links to the other characters start to gradually emerge.                               

Where each group of people are in time itself for the various sections is a bit tricky if you don’t know your Bob Dylan.   The clue is in the Dylan track Time out of Mind, which has significance for Will and Abbey.  It came out in September 1997.  Which makes the setting for their story the late nineties, with the rest following on from that.

The ending of the film is somewhat sentimental, but as Fogelman is not only an American, but is also conducting his own idealistic love affair with the concept of family, I guess that’s forgivable. The actors throughout are very engaging though and, if like me you’re a sucker for stories that play with time, it may well win you over.

For those who are not fans of Fogelman’s This is Us view of the world, this film may not go down a treat.  However it could well become one of those films which builds up a devoted following despite what I suspect will be less than favourable reviews, just as the very different but also off centre Cloud Atlas did.

Carol Allen

Author: Carol Allen

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