Upon seeing the teaser trailer for “Life Itself,” I knew immediately it would break my heart in all the best ways. After seeing it twice in less than 24 hours during its opening weekend, the film did just that.
Written and directed by Dan Fogelman (best known for creating NBC’s “This Is Us”), “Life Itself” is a multi-generational, cross-continental story of how a handful of individuals are connected through tragedy and love.
There is so much power in the ability to make people smile while tears are still running down their cheeks, though professional critics of the film don’t agree and haven’t been too kind.
Fogelman’s deeply personal, masterfully witty writing is what drives the film. The slightly inappropriate jokes and gut-wrenching realizations are balanced and well-timed throughout.
The film is dialogue-heavy, sure. But have we really become so accustomed to 280 characters or less and superhero fights for a lot of conversation to equal a negative movie-going experience? I hope not.
“He believed in the power of the written word,” the narrator tells us about Antonio Banderas’s character, Mr. Saccione. And it’s clear that Fogelman does too.
There’s power in the words Fogelman wrote; his story is raw and compelling. There’s also power in what the actors did with them, and in what was done with the silence in between those words.
A seasoned ensemble cast brings the individual characters, and their relationships to each other, to life. Oscar Isaac plays Will’s intensity with ease, Sergio Peris-Mencheta and Laia Costa have appropriately reserved chemistry and Mandy Patinkin is the epitome of laugh lines and wisdom.
The cinematography and editing reflect how people actually react to life, how they see and experience the world. The camera mirrors Will’s tortured mind and mimics the erratic way he takes in everything around him as he walks the streets of New York City. When Rodrigo receives devastating news from home, we see the sun-drenched memory that immediately appears in his mind.
The film can be blunt, yes — it makes jokes in the wake of trauma and depression. But anyone who has been through even a fraction of such pain knows that humor is how people cope. That’s real.
Fogelman is not subtle in what he’s trying to say — just look at the movie’s title. But that doesn’t make the message any less brilliant and true and profound.
Near the end of the film, Isabel tells Rodrigo: “Life brings you to your knees. It brings you lower than you think you can go. But if you stand back up and move forward, if you go just a little further, you will always find love.”
No sifting required. Call it cliched, but cliches are what they are for a reason — sometimes they’re just the best expression of a feeling. Life is hard. Sometimes it’s nice to be given plain and simple advice from a filmmaker who understands emotion.
The straightforwardness of the message doesn’t mean there isn’t still beauty to be found in the details — like recurring pb&j sandwiches and white flowers.
The critics may not have appreciated these details, or the larger message, the way I did. I was taken aback until I remembered what the narrator told us about critics:
“When critics reviewed Abby Dempsey’s favorite album, Bob Dylan’s 1997-released ‘Time Out of Mind,’ the song ‘Make You Feel My Love’ was a source of much criticism. Every track on the album brimmed with unrelenting melancholy and sadness. But there, smack in the middle of it all sat an unabashedly populist hit song… Critics argued that putting an on-the-nose love song in the middle of an album about despair and tragedy was Dylan’s only misstep – others argued that it was his point.”
This. This quote, this nut paragraph, this message was Fogelman’s point. To shamelessly mirror the sentiment of Bob Dylan’s album and create a film about life; to remind us that even in the middle of overwhelming sadness, good things can be found.
So don’t listen to the critics. (They must not have heard the narrator’s musing about Bob Dylan’s album.) You have to find the moments of love and hope and happiness among the sadness in “Life Itself” — and life, itself. They’re there, and I promise the experience is worth it.