Life Itself – or ‘How Not To Cross A Road: The Movie’ is a mixed bag of big ideas that doesn’t quite hit the mark. This is due to many factors – mainly writing – but it’s worth noting that this is not an out-and-out bad film. It just swings and misses too frequently with a plot that feels manipulative when it should have been heartfelt and sincere, and focuses on the wrong things when it has other, far more interesting options to explore.
Dan Fogleman, who is currently enjoying great TV success as the creator of the award-winning This Is Us, writes and directs this collection of inter-connecting stories that spans generations that all collide through a shared tragedy. I’m a fan of Fogelman’s past work, especially as the writer of Disney’s most under-appreciated movie Tangled and the hilarious triple-header of Crazy Stupid Love, Danny Collins and Last Vegas. His past successes make Life Itself’s failings all the more puzzling.
The plot initially involves a young couple living in New York (Olivia Wilde and Oscar Isaac) as we follow their story from a burgeoning college romance right through to marriage and the birth of their child – a daughter named Dylan. Elsewhere, a wealthy landowner named Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas) gets to know one of his best workers on his olive grove – Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and his wife Isabel (Laia Costa). I can’t really go into much more detail than that as it will give away too many spoilers, but their stories connect as love, life, loss and hope all come into play for a romantic drama that has big ambitions but ultimately loses its way.
The first thing that the film gets wrong is making you laugh when it shouldn’t. There’s plenty of tragedy here and most of it stems from people’s inability to cross a road with any semblance of common sense or due diligence. It becomes funny – more like a Final Destination film – and you find yourself baffled at how such an easy mistake could have slipped through the cracks in such a big production. It’s a real shame because it’s this that ultimately undoes the good intention of the movie. It also doesn’t help that those scenes are shot poorly too, almost in a Naked Gun/Tom and Jerry way that overplays its hand at every opportunity to feel like a Crimewatch re-enactment.
Then there are the plot points that just go begging. The film has big ideas, covers a lot of important topics such as depression, grief and suicide, and has a lot of interesting characters but we never get a proper exploration of theses themes. Too much screen-time is spent with the older version of Dylan (played by Olivia Cooke), and her past traumas are only surface-scratched in favour of some clichéd examples of living in denial (she goes to concerts on a school night!). Mandy Patinkin is wonderful as her long-suffering grandfather but just isn’t afforded enough screen time to make a real difference – and the same goes for Jean Smart as his wife too.
Which brings us nicely onto the cast. They are all uniformly superb and deserved better. Olivia Wilde and Oscar Isaac are great and really give the opening half an hour some depth and relatability. Isaac in particular handles the complexities of his character’s predicament very well, as does Annette Bening as his therapist. Àlex Monner and Isabel Durant are entertaining in the final third of the film. Antonio Banderas is the best thing in the movie and his story is a fascinating one. The talented actor usually elevates everything he is in, and he hands in an assured performance in Life Itself as a rich man with a poor past, whose life story is fuelled by his search for happiness.
Sergio Peris-Mencheta and Laia Costa are also really good and add some interesting depth to this story. But their collective work is put to the test by a script that frequently conjures up silly circumstance and predictable drama that works all too conveniently to further the narrative on, and at times doesn’t ring true with the characters themselves. For instance, Javier’s cold reception to Saccione’s initial offer of friendship at the start just makes no sense whatsoever, especially given how their stories develop over time.
Tonally, Life Itself is also a bit confused because it doesn’t really know what kind of a film it wants to be. There’s some dark comedy (intentional) at the start of the movie and it works well, especially with Samuel L. Jackson’s funny narration. But then the serious bits feel ham-fisted and forced, tugging at your heartstrings in a by-the-numbers way. Then there are the interwoven connections to the stories (and you don’t need to be a detective to suss those out early on).
It has problems but Life Itself is still worth a watch. The cast are the main reason to give this a go and the stories are worth your time. It just frustrates me because with some care and attention, this could have been a real winner. Instead, Life Itself is like… well, life itself in that it tries hard and some things work and some things don’t. It will certainly make you laugh and cry (perhaps not in the way the filmmakers would have liked) but there’s enough here to keep you entertained. And releasing this on the first weekend in January (in select cinemas and more importantly, straight to Sky Cinema), could be a masterstroke as it will certainly find a willing audience looking to stay in and hibernate on the most depressing week of the year.
Cast: Olivia Wilde, Oscar Isaac, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Àlex Monner, Isabel Durant, Lorenza Izzo, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Robinson, Adrian Marrero Director: Dan Fogelman Writer: Dan Fogelman Released By: Sky Cinema Certificate: 15 Duration: 117 mins Release Date: 4th January 2019