Life Itself (2018) is a melodrama that has a very clear point it wants to make: the actions that we take make ripples, and we can’t foresee the effects they’ll take. A literary and film convention of the unreliable narrator is embedded into the story, as well as the presentation of the film’s plot – which ultimately ties back into the point previously referenced. Life can, and will, surprise you…and this movie takes that to mean lots of coincidences and seemingly unrelated events will collide and create new lines to follow on this crazy journey. While it would be easy to see why people may not be satisfied with how this movie plays out, the cast and the film’s odd tone worked enough for me to enjoy it. Or…at least I think I did.
Life Itself is melodrama camp packaged in some shocking moments…that I didn’t hate
It’s not truly easy to nail down the plot of this film as it is broken into five chapters that each focus on a different person. Of course, all of them are connected in some way, even if that way isn’t initially clear to them or the audience. Those connections all stem from one couple who begin the film’s story. Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde) have had either an amazing marriage, or a marriage full of lies. She left Will six months ago…or a tragic accident took her away from him. It’s not that I don’t know, but the movie wants to trick you, which is likely where it loses a lot of people early on.
The movie opens with a narrator voiced by a cameo that shocked me and made me laugh, quickly endearing me to the film. As we are introduced to the idea of a hero which changes from a guy on a couch to his female therapist, played by Annette Bening, that slowly brings us to introduce Oscar Isaac’s character, Will, before suddenly hitting the breaks. Nothing that we just saw was real, as it was a part of a screenplay that a much rougher looking version of Will wrote at a coffee shop. It becomes very clear that Will is having a rough time at the moment, as he turns his double espresso into a whiskey double and is escorted out after treating the other customers to his rendition of a Bob Dylan song.
This deceptive style of storytelling continues through the first chapter. We are told information only to then be shown a different version of that same tale, and then another version…always unclear of what is true and what isn’t. This ties back into the unreliable narrator – which is part of Abby’s story, as it was her college thesis. It is introduced as a story plot point, but also used to tell the story of the characters in the film. Much like the often reviled “it was all a dream” cliché, using things like this to dress up an otherwise mundane story can push away an audience. To me, it was ballsy and used effectively enough to keep me engaged with what was happening.
The cast is what truly won me over. Isaac is always charming, and I believed the relationship he had with Wilde. Isaac’s story is accompanied with Benning, and elicited a Wonderful Life or Christmas Carol kind of vibe at times as they moved through memories as ghostly third parties. Mandy Patinkin gets a few really solid moments, though he did feel sadly underused. That is also true of the wonderful Olivia Cooke, who Hollywood needs to really give a strong lead performance or back one of her indie films so more people will see her talent. She’s good here, but her character’s sequence is one of the shorter ones. Antonio Banderas really gives a fantastic and heartfelt performance. His talent often gets overshadowed by some of the lesser roles he’s taken in his career, but when he is given the opportunity to act, he nails it.
At the film’s end, I felt an odd tinge of sadness and wistfulness. I was fine with all of the coincidences that film had forced into its plot as a necessary evil to makes its point. It’s not a life-changing film, but it was one that made me laugh, tear up a bit, and become very introspective. That was enough for me. Life Itself earned the Decent Watch rating.