February is birthday month in the O’Connell household, as I and my two sons all share birthdays within a few days of each other. It’s a joyous annual celebration — and it’s pure hell on my poor wife, who manages a weeklong celebration for the men in her life with superhuman enthusiasm and a staggering amount of care. One tradition involves hanging streamers from every doorway in the house, so that the boys can walk around all week bursting through colorful curtains of celebratory ribbon. It’s a nice touch, but a lot of work. One year, I snapped a picture of her hanging the streamers, somewhere around 11:30 pm, because the boys finally had gone to bed and she was hellbent on surprising them. And a comment, made by one of my childhood friends, sticks with me, to this day. He commented, “And somewhere in this world, a little girl sleeps, totally unaware of the disappointment she will be to her future mother-in-law for not meeting the bar set by Michele.”
That story weaves perfectly with writer-director Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself. The movie has a lot of characters, and those characters all have their own stories. But Fogelman understands that stories taking place all over the globe have the potential to intersect, and that one story you might have no interest in whatsoever can suddenly become the most important story in the world, because now it pertains to you.
We think that the main character in Life Itself is Will (Oscar Isaac), a Manhattan man suffering from a loss who’s spilling his guts to his therapist (Annette Bening). But we’re never 100% certain, because Fogelman flirts with the concept of an “Unreliable Narrator.” (This isn’t sly. The concept is mentioned numerous times, and even spelled out in a lengthy monologue. Life Itself, for all its good intentions, is anything but subtle.) The focus of the movie, arguably, could also be Abby (Olivia Wilde), Will’s dream girl who left him… for reasons that the movie will reveal when the time is right. Or maybe it’s Dylan (Olivia Cooke), a punk-rock Millennial being raised by her grandfather (Mandy Patinkin)? Wait, why is Life Itself also following a storyline where Antonio Banderas assists a skilled olive picker and his wife as they raise a young child in the rural outposts of Spain?
Life Itself takes chances, particularly with regards to structure. It opens with a very funny bit involving Samuel L. Jackson that announces this to be a movie that won’t follow traditional rules. (Those who also follow Dan Fogelman’s TV creation, This Is Us, will be accustomed to the way he uses flashbacks and flash-forwards to fill in gaps on a sprawling story.) But the unwieldy approach to story only proves Fogelman’s point in Life Itself, and that’s the fact that we’re all part of a larger life story that might be playing out simultaneous to your own existence, and you won’t realize it until the events of one story intersect with your own path. Like that little girl, sleeping peacefully somewhere, unaware of my wife’s presence in what will be her story, someday.
Life Itself can be hokey, and melodramatic, peddling dime-store psychology that isn’t probing nearly as deeply into the human condition as Dan Fogelman probably believes. But it also deflects that heavy-handed sentimentality with a needed sarcasm and a foul-mouthed screenplay. One friend called this “the R-rated episode of This Is Us,” and that’s fair. But the cast is on point — particularly Oscar Isaac, shouldering a very difficult role that has to connect two points of the story that really shouldn’t connect — and the witty, tender and curious structure of the narrative kept me engaged. Messy? Sure. But whose life isn’t?