[Life Itself is perhaps the most difficult American indie sub-genre to get right; The Generation Spanning-Time Hopping Collection Of Inter-Linked Stories That All Work To Serve A Big Theme. Written and directed by Dan Fogelman, creator of sudsy but classy TV drama This Is Us, the huge thesis here is "Life is the ultimate unreliable narrator" (the message is delivered in dialogue in case we are unsure) and he explores it in a mixture of structural tricksiness and over-played sentiment that not even a quality cast can rescue.
Following an almost unwatchable prologue narrated by Samuel L. Jackson that is revealed all to be a sham (there is a lot of rug pulling in Life Itself — unreliable narrators, see), the different strands spin off from the relationship between married college sweethearts (Isaac, Wilde). The relationship is painted in affected twee strokes — he proposes dressed as Vincent to her Jules at a Pulp Fiction costume party; they have a dog named Fuckface — all marinated in a lot of talk about Bob Dylan’s 'Time Out Of Mind' comeback album — 'Make You Feel My Love' offering a glimmer of hope in a dark bluesy milieu.
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This story gives way to following the couple’s disaffected teen daughter Dylan (Cooke) turning 'Make You Feel My Love' into an angry punk ditty. The next tale makes a huge leap to Spain and concerns wealthy Sig Saccione (Antonio Banderas) giving a leg up to olive plantation worker Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) who marries Isabel (Costa), uncharitably described as the “fourth prettiest of six sisters” in the kind of throwaway detail the script thrives on. This story is the most effective, partly due to the central trio and partly because Fogelman throws away the gimmicks to concentrate on people.
Next up is Javier and Isabel’s son Rodrigo (Àlex Monner) caught up in a traumatic incident during a family vacation in New York and later forging a new relationship once at college. It’s the story that brings the narrative full circle, wrapping things up in a way that is far too pat for anything called Life Itself.
Fogelman’s filmmaking is visually slick and the starry cast labour gallantly. But underneath all its cleverness, easy platitudes and writerly writing, it never gets close to authenticity. A little messy reality might have gone a long way.