In the span of two years, Dan Fogelman has become one of NBC’s most prized television creators with his latest television project This is Us, a generational drama that has become a favorite for millions of Americans across the country. He has definitely worked on a couple other successful projects but it would be foolish not to see that, from this point on, his name will be synonymous with the award-winning NBC show. That was definitely the case with Life Itself, a generational drama that was certainly trying to convince the This is Us crowd to go see Fogelman’s second silver screen effort in theaters. Unfortunately, while it definitely looks and sounds like Fogelman’s popular television creation, it is far from the same quality. In fact, it’s a perfect example as to why the format isn’t exactly a perfect transition from television to film.
In terms of the story, Life Itself has the type of narrative that feels like every little detail is a spoiler if explained. Similar to the film’s advertising, the story is banking on the audience buying a ticket solely on the cast and the mystery surrounding the story. What do Olivia Wilde and Oscar Isaac have to do with Antonio Banderas? How is this similar to This is Us? These are the questions Fogelman wants the audience to ask as they watch it unfold. It’s attempting to be a generational epic about love and loss, trying to prove that life is the ultimate unreliable narrator that takes us down routes we’d never expect both good and bad. Unfortunately, it’s not as surprising as it thinks it is.
By the time the film rolls into its second chapter, it’s about as transparent as a film like this can be. With each new tragic event and new character, you start to notice the twists and turns the story is taking all the way to its “surprising” finale, resulting in a film that’s barely over a hundred minutes feeling like almost three hours as it gently skips to a finale anyone can see coming by the time the film hits an hour. That doesn’t mean it’s a boring film; it certainly has a moment or two that’ll be legitimately surprising as well as character moments that are charming and emotional. However, its pacing is far from perfect, hindering the final product as you can’t help but notice that Fogelman’s interest in generational, interconnecting stories work a lot better when he’s given more than the runtime of roughly two This is Us episodes. When what could be an entire season’s content is shoved into a film that isn’t even two hours, anyone can see the problems of that scenario.
Thankfully though, Life Itself also shows the best of Fogelman through his directing capabilities. The film has a great cast that elevates its sappy and philosophical dialogue to a degree where it never took me out of the film. For example, Oscar Isaac’s Will is a man who is absolutely in love with Olivia Wilde’s Abby to the point where just asking her out is a major commitment to him because once he asks her out, he’ll never want to be with anyone else. I would’ve rolled my eyes if anyone else said sappy stuff like that. However, Isaac sells that obsessive love well and Wilde has great chemistry with him. Even smaller roles like Mandy Pantinkin’s Irwin and Isabel Durant’s Shari Dickstein work better than they have any right to thanks to Fogelman’s direction, leaving me with a revelation that talent is not the film’s weak point at all.
In fact, I believe the writing is a contender for the weakest part of the film. Fogelman is known for being able to balance drama and comedy organically in This is Us, creating a final product that is surprisingly more authentic than it might look. If a film wants to juggle different tones like that, it needs to balance them and, unfortunately, Life Itself doesn’t do that. The film goes from an odd, self-aware start that feels a little too meta to an extremely dark turn that finishes in a slow, dramatic tone that almost feels like a different film by the time it ends. That’s definitely due to the structure of the film because the script basically pushes two stories together in a way where it feels like the first story is there only to prepare you for a quiz about the second story and how it intersects with the first narrative. While this isn’t a confusing setup, it’s still weird because I’ve rarely seen a film drop its established cast for an entirely new one by the second act when, in all honesty, it could’ve hopped between both storylines throughout and it wouldn’t have hurt the film at all. Honestly, it might’ve made the story and tonal shift a lot less jarring.
In the end, Life Itself is a film that isn’t horrible nor is it the emotional tour-de-force that it wants to be. A great cast, good character moments, and the occasional story beat that works help keep the film engaging enough through its runtime. However, it’s hard not to see its downfalls when its structure, pacing, and tonal dissonance make you realize that this probably would’ve worked better as a limited series rather than a film. That being said though, there is enough here for This is Us fans if they check out a matinee showing. If you’re not a This is Us fan, then you might be in my situation where you don’t hate it yet know that its problems are glaring and somewhat obvious. There are better generational stories out there so if you have any interest in them, I’d recommend Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, Gregory Nava’s My Family, or even Dan Fogelman’s own This is Us over this film any day. That last one is probably the most important because while Life Itself is a generational story by Dan Fogelman, its only real impact is showing how frustrating the subgenre can be when not given the time it deserves.