Not to be confused with 2014’s brilliant ode to Roger Ebert, 2018’s Life Itself is a time-spanning family drama from Hollywood screenwriter and This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman. Fogelman has taken the clout he’s earned from his award-winning hit television show and he’s made a movie only an ambitious storyteller could make with a team of producers who trust his reputation.
The film is disarming at first; playing out like an overtly confident dramedy narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and his famous vocabulary. But then, the film turns violent and sombre; dealing in themes of trauma, depression, addiction, and mental health. It also doesn’t help that the audience can’t trust the movie, unlike that team of hopeful film producers. The story will pitch a situation the requires emotional investment from viewers, only to stomp on it and start fresh with an alternate narrative. We want to go with the flow of the movie, but restlessness can’t help but set in when the story isn’t in command of itself.
That’s when the film turns to face the audience. By the halfway mark, it becomes very clear in Dan Fogelman’s sophomore directional effort that the film’s uncertainty is intentional, even going as far as directly addressing how useless a narrator can be (up until this point, a few actors have shared narration duties). The film’s “chapters” start to tie together, and soon resembles a cohesive linear story rather than a series of beautiful yet disjointed extended vignettes.
It took a while, but I eventually warmed up to Life Itself – taking me from a grouchy perspective to an encouraging standpoint where I feel comfortable recommending it to patient, open-minded movie goers. It’s a tad unkempt, but think of it as a far less grittier The Place Beyond the Pines with the serendipitous appeal of Magnolia.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie