Now forever linked with Steve James’ infinitely superior Roger Ebert documentary of the same name, Life Itself ranks up with Kin as the year’s elite incredible cinematic train wreck, a disaster so dedicated to its failed approach that the consistency results in its own form of must-see entertainment.
Foregoing the quirky charms of his Crazy Stupid Love script and the maturity of his feature directorial debut Danny Collins, writer/director Dan Fogelman goes all-in on the borderline-overbearing emotions of his hit NBC series This Is Us, filtering it through patience-testing levels of twee.
Centering on a handful of individual children — always an only child — who are practically guaranteed to prematurely lose at least one parent, Life Itself is a feature-length exploration of how one such familial tragedy shapes the bulk of its central characters, moving in and out of timelines as these cliché types’ stories intersect.
Giving their all to a hopeless cause, Kool-Aid imbibers Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke and Antonio Banderas are put through these would-be profound steps in one overly cutesy scene after another.
In them, characters who love to monologue — Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind is discussed to painful excess — say how they truly feel, followed by their actually spoken guarded words, or simply show up at a Halloween party dressed as Pulp Fiction characters, quoting famous lines and reenacting scenes as if that’s amusing to anyone but themselves.
Such rampant, unchecked earnestness resembles the product of a freshman screenplay course that’s promptly shredded to bits by professor and students alike to rid the writer of such preciousness — yet here it is on the big screen, made possible by talented actors and a previously promising filmmaker.
Not helping matters is an infatuation with the concept of “the unreliable narrator” that’s discussed ad nauseam and without new insights, though the early (and somewhat obvious) casting of Samuel L. Jackson in that role carries some appeal.
The same goes for the small percentage of jokes that land among the numerous attempts across the film’s variety of people, settings and pop culture references — though these winning moments about as rare as Life Itself’s chances at an Oscar nomination, even in the new Popular Film category.
Grade: D-minus. Rated R. Starts Sept. 14 at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Amazon Studios)