‘Life It­self’ is star-stud­ded, earnest but lack­ing

Chattanooga Times Free Press - ChattanoogaNow - - MOVIES - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS BY LIND­SEY BAHR

Hall­mark sen­ti­men­tal­ity, pas­sion­ate de­fenses of Bob Dy­lan’s “Time Out of Mind” and hor­rific head trau­mas are thrown to­gether in Dan Fo­gel­man’s “Life It­self ,” a cu­ri­ous cock­tail of a movie from the “This is Us” cre­ator about all of life’s high­est highs and low­est lows across gen­er­a­tions and con­ti­nents.

Fo­gel­man has seem­ingly never met an ex­treme emo­tion he doesn’t want to ex­ploit, and “Life It­self ” might be the apex of that guid­ing prin­ci­ple.

For a movie in which the phrase “un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor” is re­peated at least a dozen times, “Life It­self” is in­cred­i­bly easy to spoil and oddly dif­fi­cult to tease. It starts over sev­eral times, it lies, it back­tracks, it mis­leads and sur­prises all in ser­vice of try­ing to ham­mer in the the­sis that “life is the un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor.” Life may be un­re­li­able, sure, but movies sure as heck don’t have to be to prove the point and this cyn­i­cal de­vice does not serve the earnest story he’s at­tempt­ing to tell. Nor does all the head trauma.

If there is a be­gin­ning, it’s with Will (Os­car Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), who are apart in the present, but not too long ago were mar­ried, liv­ing in New York, ex­tremely preg­nant and spend­ing long morn­ings in bed coo­ing at each other un­der white linens and dis­cussing that 1997 Dy­lan al­bum. Will is do­ing so poorly with the sep­a­ra­tion that he’s taken up screen­writ­ing and be­rat­ing baris­tas while pour­ing al­co­hol into his cof­fee at an hour when such be­hav­ior is gen­er­ally frowned upon.

He tells his ther­a­pist, Dr. Mor­ris (An­nette Ben­ing), about Abby and how in love, or, more ac­cu­rately, how ob­sessed he was with her. She’s beau­ti­ful, nur­tur­ing, and will eat ev­ery­thing the sushi chef puts in front of her, “Even the uni.”

There are shades of “( 500) Days of Sum­mer” in this whole seg­ment as they go from the fate­ful Hal­loween where they fell in love while dressed as Vin­cent Vega and Mia Wal­lace, back to Abby’s tragic child­hood and up to din­ner with the in-laws (Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart).

But then that part of the story ends, quite abruptly, and we’re taken to Spain to meet some new peo­ple who are sort of cos­mi­cally linked to the New York­ers. Spain is the stronger part of the movie, with a con­tained and com­pellingly writ­ten story of a sim­ple farmer Javier ( Ser­gio Peris-Mencheta), his wife Is­abel (Laia Costa), their son and the wealthy farm owner and land­lord, Mr. Sac­cione (a very good An­to­nio Ban­deras who has a heck of a mono­logue about his mother and the Ital­ian man she mar­ried). Yet even this reads as a lit­tle false, a lit­tle for­eign and a lit­tle too con­ve­niently cute and folksy to be fully be­lieved and em­braced.

In fact, noth­ing much in “Life It­self ” feels like life it­self. It is too pol­ished, too wink­ing, too big and too much to be all that re­lat­able, even with a cast as ap­peal­ing as this. Plus, Fo­gel­man makes the odd choice to make nearly ev­ery­thing look present day, de­spite the fact that the story takes us through mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions.

As some­one who has failed to be won over by “This is Us” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” which Fo­gel­man wrote, I had come to be­lieve that his worldview was for some peo­ple and not for oth­ers. Now I think “Life It­self ” might be the thing that unites us.

AP PHOTO/JON PACK

Olivia Wilde, left, and Os­car Isaac in a scene from “Life It­self.”

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