MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
After spending two hours in a theater with the cast of characters of Life Itself, I found myself in a bit of a quandary. The acting is excellent overall, including both English and Spanish speaking (subtitled) roles. The movie has some wise things to say, but the script draws too much attention to itself. The film is overly clever in its construction, but by its conclusion I found its message rather banal, easily paraphrased by Dorothy Fields in her song lyrics from 1936: “I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.”
There’s a great deal of tragedy in Life Itself but also a lot of misinformation, since the film is told in chapters, and intersecting storylines that reveal some of the same events with different memories and points of view. The film wants to show us how each life has a ripple effect upon those around us. Life Itself also reminds us how much of our life is totally out of our control. These insights are nothing new. The film’s lack of spirituality only makes things worse.
Still, I enjoyed this film, mostly due to its gifted cast, including Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde as the young couple whose courtship and marriage form the center point of the story, Annette Benning as a therapist, Antonio Banderas as an Andalusian olive grower, with Laia Costa and Sergio Peris-Mencheta as a young couple who work in his vineyards. Mandy Patinkin is also good in his smaller role as a grandfather. Good actors bring commitment to any role and this cast delivers the goods. The cinematography is beautiful and serves the story well.
I appreciated the deeper questions hidden beneath this film. Why is life so complicated, with times of great joy interrupted by tragic loss? Why is it so hard to make sense out of life and why do we so often push away those caregivers and friends who attempt to accompany us out of our deepest despair? How can we move on in life when we have past events that continue to leave scars for decades?
These are good questions that deserve more than this film can offer. Let me highly recommend three great films: 2001’s Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (a film by Jill Sprecher) that handles interrelated characters better; Kenneth Lonergan’s 2011 Margaret, a better film about dealing with guilt and loss after tragedy (with an event that closely resembles one in this film); and 2014’s Life Itself (yep, same title!), a film biography of film critic Roger Ebert, that shows (among other things) his valiant fight against failing health and his embrace of life, accompanied by his loving wife Chaz and his online community.
In conclusion, I commend writer-director Dan Fogelman (creator-director of the excellent This Is Us television series) for attempting something different with this movie. Although I felt a bit shortchanged at movie’s end, your experience may bear greater fruit.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Three halos: Wheat and tares together sown, there are touching scenes of love, compassion and forgiveness scattered with pretentious dialogue and a self-important script.
Three pitchforks: Much strong language, including crude sexual expressions; scenes of shocking violence; implied sexual abuse; recreational drug and alcohol use.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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