Dan Fogelman, the man behind NBC’s weepy TV series This is Us, has a new movie with a stellar cast out this week called Life Itself. If you’ve seen his show, you probably already know what’s in store. If you’ve never seen an episode, then take a hint from the trailer: there will be many stories unraveling all at once and there will be crying.
Unfortunately, Life has not found love among the critics. The movie has been heading towards a rotten rating since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. Nothing in the convoluted storyline or pedestrian cinematography really captured anyone’s attention. There were problems with packing too much drama in too little time, repeated themes that wore out their welcome and silly coincidences that robbed the movie of any notion of reality.
Perhaps the main appeal for most moviegoers looking forward to Life Itself is its star-studded cast. There’s Oscar Isaac, Antonio Banderas, Olivia Wilde, Álex Monner, Olivia Cooke, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Laia Costa, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Jean Smart, and in a tonally strange cameo, Samuel L. Jackson makes an appearance as an unreliable narrator. Don’t worry, they don’t all share a scene at the same time. Instead, the movie spreads their personal tragedies over the course of different generations and parts of the world including New York and Spain.
If you want to know what happens to all of these actors’ characters, I suggest watching the movie (for better or for worse). But let’s focus on one of the main heartbreakers in Life Itself, and that designation belongs to no one else quite like Oscar Isaac and his perfected sad, puppy-dog-eyed performance.
Life Itself begins on a cheat: misdirecting us and our feelings with a shocking bit of fantasy from Isaac’s character, Will. He watches his therapist (Bening) get brutally hit and killed by a tour bus on a chilly grey day in New York City, and Jackson steps aside from his narration duties to become a face in the crowd commenting on the terrible scene. Will is beside himself, but after a few moments, the movie reveals the scene to be the workings of Will’s terrible script he’s working on. Isaac loses the polished charm of his imagined self and instead looks ragged, sleep-deprived, and overall miserable as he’s sitting at a nondescript Manhattan coffee shop. The scene has taken on a hazy quality, like if he’s still in a dream.
Will begrudgingly buys more coffee, loads it with booze and pops a Xanax (or two), and causes a ruckus on his way out. This is a man in pain, although the movie won’t outright tell its audience until almost the end of Will’s chapter. Because there are so many more stories to go through, his is only part of the compilation, and unfortunately, we don’t get nearly enough Isaac screentime.
Now at his therapist’s office, Will is combative and standoffish, forced to keep this mandated appointment to get over losing his wife (Wilde) and not wanting to talk about what happened to her. Will eventually rambles on, filling in the audience about what he remembers, musings about whether or not he misremembered the past and opens up about his bitterness at the situation. It’s an unwieldy dialogue between the two characters, but it allows Isaac to show some range.
We see him back when he meets Abby, the woman who would become his wife, and the progression of their relationship from undergrad sweethearts to expectant parents. Isaac gets to share cuddly moments with Wilde at a party where they dress like John Travolta and Uma Thurman from Pulp Fiction and in bed talking about Bob Dylan before they have to visit Will’s parents (Patinkin and Smart). He’s full of energy and possibility in these moments that are only more painful to realize what happens what happens next.
So yes, Isaac may break your heart when you go to see Life Itself, but so will just about everyone else in the cast. No one is spared some kind of tragedy, so everyone from Olivia Cook to Antonio Banderas will have their chance at a tearjerking, emotional scene. Isaac’s storyline just happens to be the one that sets the stage that all the other players will build off of, and as such, his character suffers a great deal to open the movie.
Life Itself opens in theaters on September 21, 2018.