How much of life is destiny, and how much of it is luck? That’s the question that “Life Itself” attempts to explore, by looking at life’s seemingly random, occasionally magical coincidences and their meaning — if there is any meaning.
“Attempts” being the key word here.
Writer-director Dan Fogelman (creator of “This Is Us,” the NBC series that makes people cry and look suspiciously at their Crock-Pots) interweaves stories about two families over multiple generations. Will and Abby (Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde) are a young New York couple who met at college and are now expecting their first child. Javier and Isabel (Sergio Peris-Mencheta and Laia Costa) are a Spanish couple just starting out together; they live in a caretaker’s cottage in Andalusia, where Javier oversees the land of a wealthy olive grower (Antonio Banderas). Repeatedly — and unknowingly — these two pairs are tied together, in a series of mostly tragic events.
The film invites us to think about how historical events come together to create the people who are now living. Here’s an ancestor who escaped the Plague. There’s another one snatched from her homeland, a soldier who didn’t fall while those around him did. One little change in time, the film suggests, and everything that comes after changes. It’s a lesson we all learned from “Back to the Future,” and clearly it intrigues Fogelman.
The major problem with “Life Itself” is that the filmmaker doesn’t trust his audience to find that lesson as interesting as he does. (The movie is distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Movies should invite viewers in, taking them on a journey together with the characters on-screen. Unfortunately, “Life Itself” is less journey than lecture. To make sure we get his points, Fogelman fills the script with impassioned, overlong speeches that communicate the Very Important Things he has to say.
There are other problems: Every fall in love is instantaneous, every fall out of it devastating. Every man is passionate, every woman beautiful, smart and a little weird. (Note to lazy writers: “Quirky” is not a personality trait.)
There’s also no real sense of space or time. Though the movie was shot in both New York City and Spain, both locations have the same feel (except for the golden light that bathes every Spanish scene). What’s more, even though one family’s story is told over four generations, all save one story — notable because of the 1950s costumes — seem to take place in the present.
For the most part, the actors do what they can with what they have been given, though Isaac is the only one who actually appears to age from scene to scene, going from mop-topped college student to bearded, angry man taking his double espresso in a large cup (so he can top it off with Jack Daniels). Overall, the Spanish cast fares better. Banderas is particularly good, while Peris-Mencheta and Costa — both well-known in Spanish cinema — have a believable, tumultuous chemistry.
Perhaps “This Is Us” fans will catch glimmers of the creative genius behind the Tuesday night juggernaut here. The rest of us are more likely to feel cheated by the film’s often outlandish coincidences, which Fogelman uses to keep making (and remaking) his point. In other words, your hard-earned entertainment budget might be better spent on an entirely different movie — maybe even one chosen entirely at random.
R. At area theaters. Contains coarse language, including sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use. 113 minutes.