As a followup to the wild success of the award-winning TV show “This Is Us,” creator Dan Fogelman (“Crazy Stupid Love”) returns to the big-screen with the star-studded film “Life Itself.” But, Fogelman is experiencing a burnout. “Life Itself” follows Will (Oscar Isaac, “Annihilation”) as he recovers from the end of his marriage with his college sweetheart Abby (Olivia Wilde, “Drinking Buddies”). Through therapy sessions with Dr. Morris (Annette Bening, “20th Century Women”), Will explores the key moments in his and Abby’s lives that led up to their separation.
Although the monologues have the same rhythm of the emotional speeches of “This Is Us,” a show that redefined the quality of network dramas, “Life Itself” is too muddled. While the multiple timelines on “This Is Us” play out coherently and impactfully, in the limited space of a film only confusion results. Fogelman also indulges in grotesque, sadistic violence, forcing his characters to undergo every possible avenue of trauma with no empathy toward their suffering, only an obsessive fascination with torturing fictional people. In a teenage-rage response to the gooey sentimentality of “This Is Us,” Fogelman packs “Life Itself” with every R-rated sequence of trauma, from molestation to decapitation.
Every actor tries to showcase their chops, but the terrible script creates unbreakable barriers. Fogelman, in a show of pretentious douchery, inserts a meta excuse for the haggard narrative: Abby’s college thesis that explores unreliable narrators, challenging the way stories work. Fogelman, in all his ego, believes he has imagined a new format for stories, one that all the writers before him could not fathom. But, in reality, he has created the scribbled mess of a kindergartener learning their ABCs. Hold up, I’m sorry — that’s the first half of the film. Halfway through, Fogelman switches the narrative to a family in Spain with a complete tonal 180° and little preparation or explanation for the move.
The story refocuses on olive farmer Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas, “The Expendables 3”) in Spain as he navigates a love triangle with the wife of his foreman. Although still interested in trauma, the second half feels like honey compared to the first. But the storyline fades due to the distracting question: Why does it exist in the same film? Rather than lean into the success of “This Is Us,” Fogelman tries too hard to prove he could do something different. Fogelman wants the parts of “Life Itself” to fit together like a complicated knot. Instead, he shows that there’s a difference between an expert constructing a beautiful puzzle and an amatuer trying to undo a knot only to make a bigger mess.