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The extent to which your tear ducts well up on cue in Life Itself — a function built into this assaultive bout of emotional uplift with the tireless regularity of a self-flushing toilet — will depend on your threshold for watching people smile through pain. Dan Fogelman is a skilled hand at this kind of shameless manipulation, pushing buttons with enough sophistication and character complexity to make his weepy NBC series This Is Us a hit with most critics as well as audiences. His second feature as writer-director (following 2015’s Danny Collins) sends a classy cast down a similarly twisty multistrand narrative path, but it’s both schematic and self-important.
One should never underestimate how much folks enjoy a good cry followed by a comforting hug or a reassuring laugh, at least that’s what Amazon will be hoping when they release the film shortly after its Toronto premiere. But even sob-aholics might feel they’re being unfairly prodded once they start adding up the tragedies that befall the linked characters here over five individually titled chapters.
Parents die in ghastly road accidents or by their own hand, children are orphaned or psychologically scarred, a thoroughly decent man of the land loses his family to his rich employer, and of course, a good woman gets cancer, meaning it’s headscarf time again. It’s typical of this bloated melodrama’s aggressive heart-tugging that she’s framed in one deathbed shot by a long mirror with a crucifix above her, like a religious souvenir from the martyred saints collection.
The last major film that trafficked in grief porn to this degree was the mawkish Will Smith vehicle, Collateral Beauty. Fogelman is a savvier craftsman than the hacks behind that mush, but that doesn’t make his thesis any less trite. He dresses it up with a lot of fancy talk about unreliable narrators and unexpected heroes, plus a heap of references to Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album, with its shot of pure love in a context of bluesy despair. Yes, Fogelman tells us over and over, life is tough, it brings you to your knees. But you get up and keep going because you never know when happiness will rise from the ashes. I’m embarrassed just typing that sentence.
A tricky opening narrated by Samuel L. Jackson makes you start wondering anxiously, 10 minutes in, if it’s ever going to stop. It does when Jackson actually jumps into the frame to reveal the playful deception, making way for a more legitimate female narrator who remains unseen and unidentified until Chapter 5.
The core New York-set story around which Fogelman weaves all the others, moving backwards and forwards as well as crossing continents, is the marriage of college sweethearts Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde). “Will loved his wife Abby with an intensity usually reserved for stalkers,” the narrator tells us. He proposes at a costume party where they’re dressed as John Travolta and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction; soon they have a baby on the way and a sweet little dog named Fuckface, just so it’s clear they have an edge and are not merely swooning saps. But Will’s regulation male-depression uniform of unkempt beard and sad, angry hoodie signals that something went wrong, even before he starts responding to the questions of his therapist (Annette Bening).
That story unfolds in Chapter 1, followed by a chapter devoted to Will and Abby’s daughter Dylan, named after you know who. She grows up into a damaged young woman played by Olivia Cooke, who turns the other Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” into a screechy punk anthem, just in case anyone missed the damaged part.
Chapter 3 shifts to a family in Spain, where wealthy landowner Sig. Saccione (Antonio Banderas) makes one of his olive plantation workers, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), listen to his endless backstory before promoting him to foreman, with a residence on the property. That gives Javier the stability to marry Isabelle (Laia Costa), the fourth-prettiest of six sisters, an observation shared for no reason other than Fogelman’s love of frilly details.
The fourth chapter focuses on Javier and Isabelle’s son Rodrigo (Alex Monner), who suffered a deep childhood trauma during a family vacation in New York, and yet chooses to return there to go to college. But it paves the way for Chapter 5, which ties the various strands together in a bow so neat it’s almost anal-retentive.
Everybody meets cute in Fogelman’s world, and they love with a special ardor that demands glistening eyes and beatific smiles. Must be exhausting. Pretty much everyone gets a happy montage set to music, too. Even Will’s long-married parents (Mandy Patinkin and the always terrific Jean Smart, who disappears much too soon) are the picture of blissed-out serenity behind their gentle joshing.
It’s contrived at every turn and talky like a French film, though 100 percent American indie in its earnest conviction that it’s saying something of substance about the unpredictable roller coaster of life and love. (Sorry, this movie is making me write things like that.) Still, for anyone partial to this kind of tears and treacle, Life Itself is dexterously structured and has an appealing, glossy sheen, with attractive visuals especially among the olive groves in Spain. No complaints about the cast, either (soulful hunk Peris-Mencheta is a real discovery), though perhaps the cast should be complaining to their agents.
Production companies: Temple Hill Entertainment, FilmNation Entertainment, 17-28 Black, in association with Nostromo Pictures
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Laia Costa, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Jean Smart, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Alex Monner, Isabel Durant, Lorenza Izzo, Samuel L. Jackson
Director-screenwriter: Dan Fogelman
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Aaron Ryder, Dan Fogelman
Executive producers: Glen Basner, Ben Browning, Alison Cohen, Milan Popelka, Isaac Klausner, Adrian Guerra
Director of photography: Brett Pawlak
Production designer: Gerald Sullivan
Costume designer: Melissa Toth
Music: Federico Jusid
Editor: Julie Monroe
Casting: John Papsidera
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Sales: FilmNation Entertainment
Rated R, 118 minutes