‘This is Us’ creator stumbles into melodrama ‘Life Itself’

Posted at 7:58 AM, Sep 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-20 09:58:09-04

“This is Us” creator Dan Fogelman has inadvertently provided a stark lesson on key differences between TV and movies with “Life Itself,” the new film that he wrote and directed. Featuring similar emotional beats, the movie suffers by cramming all that melodrama into a confined space, heightening the sense of manipulation to what feels like absurd levels.

“Life Itself” deals with many of the same themes as Fogelman’s hit NBC series, including the interconnectedness of life and the potentially crippling grief associated with losing loved ones. The central point, however, hinges on the sheer unpredictability of it all, while wrapping that in the reassuring message that recovery is possible despite the depths we might reach.

That Hallmark-card-like sentiment, alas, is delivered in pretty thudding fashion. And while there are lines of dialogue and performances that tug at the heartstrings — the death of a parent, or a parent’s desire to help and protect a child, offer strong hooks — it’s presented with so little subtlety the net effect is more annoying than uplifting.

The structure of “Life Itself” largely thwarts efforts to synopsize the plot. Suffice it to say that the story unfolds from the perspective of multiple characters, beginning with Will (Oscar Isaac), who uses sessions with his therapist (Annette Bening) to recount his mad, obsessive courtship of Abby (Olivia Wilde).

Other key players include Antonio Banderas, Olivia Cooke (“Ready Player One”), and Mandy Patinkin. Fogelman divides the various stories into chapters, using the shifting narration as a central (indeed, overtly debated) device to weave together his elaborate tapestry. That’s augmented by plenty of pop-culture references, from Bob Dylan songs to Quentin Tarantino movies.

Yet if this rough template works on “This is Us,” it’s in part because the series has the time to develop characters by exposing different facets of them, and their key experiences, over time. In the context of the show, Fogelman is essentially peeling back layers of an onion — eliciting tears in the process.

Here, the filmmaker tries to cover the same ground by having those who populate the movie deliver lengthy speeches — in Banderas’ case, literally explaining his back story and what motivates him, then asking his employee (Sergio Peris-Mencheta of the FX show “Snowfall”) to reciprocate.

Perhaps foremost, “Life Itself” feels weighted down by its sense of self-importance. The studio seemingly has high hopes for the film, giving it an early spin on the festival circuit in advance of its U.S. release. While early reviews mostly sneered, based on the buttons that are pushed, one suspects reaction will be polarizing and that the movie will surely have its fans and admirers.

Whether that translates into success even approaching what “This is Us” has achieved in television remains to be seen. But when a top TV producer applies his talent to movies and the result contains this many flaws, the first impulse is to politely suggest — at least in the short term — not quitting your day job.

“Life Itself” premieres Sept. 21 in the U.S. It’s rated R.