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Movie review: Disappointing 'Life Itself' spends too much time wallowing
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Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde star in “Life Itself.” - photo by Jon Pack, Amazon Studios

“LIFE ITSELF” — 2 stars — Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin; R (language including sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use); in general release

Life is full of ups and downs, but “Life Itself” feels way too preoccupied with the downs — and way too complicated for its own good.

At a distance, Dan Fogelman’s film is a multigenerational portrait of a family. Up close, it’s a little tougher to follow.

We start with Will, played by Oscar Isaac. Will is completing mandatory counseling sessions after his release from an institution. With the help of his therapist, Dr. Morris (Annette Bening), Will patches together a nonlinear version of his story, whereby he meets the love of his life Abby (Olivia Wilde), gets married and sees the relationship end right as he’s about to become a father. Then just when you feel like you understand Will’s story, it ends violently.

The next chapter of the film — “Life Itself” is divided into chapters by title cards —concerns Will and Abby’s child Dylan (Olivia Cooke), who is raised by her paternal grandfather Irwin (Mandy Patinkin). Dylan’s legacy of tragedy has led her down a rebellious path, and in the brief window we spend with her, we see her singing in a punk band, getting in fights backstage and abusing drugs. Then her chapter ends.

Next up? Spain, where we meet Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas), a wealthy olive oil producer, and his proud foreman-to-be Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). Javier has a young wife named Isabel (Laia Costa) and a young son named Rodrigo (played as a child by Adrian Marrero, and later as an adult by Alex Monner). Their story is also depressing — though not as violent — and eventually a connection is made to the film’s other characters.

“Life Itself” is more about a theme than a narrative arc, embodied by Abby’s senior thesis, which argues that life is the ultimate unreliable narrator. To illustrate, Fogelman’s story bounces from character to character, building an ensemble rather than focusing on a protagonist. Despite all the confusion, it eventually becomes clear who is meant to wind up with who, and even then, the payoff feels shortchanged.

Interestingly enough, the film’s opening act makes explicit references to Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” a film well known for its nonlinear looping narrative. But where Tarantino’s story was still clear to follow, “Life Itself” gets so messy — especially in its first chapter — that its style feels like more of a stunt.

On the plus side, Fogelman’s film features an appealing cast — even if you never get to spend much time with any of them, and in fact spend so much time away from them that their scenes start to feel like they came from a different film entirely.

The first passage, where we get to know Will and Abby, may prove most challenging for audiences. It is easily the most R-rated segment, with scattered violence and persistent profanity (even their dog’s name can’t be reprinted in a family newspaper) so much that audiences might be relieved to leave them behind if they can get over the brutality of their departure.

The bigger problem, though, is that “Life Itself” just feels determined to wallow in melodrama for the sake of dragging its audience into the emotional depths, all in an effort to illustrate the beautiful pains of life. Life has plenty of pain and plenty of beauty, but “Life Itself” never manages to capture its true joy.

“Life Itself” is rated R for language including sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use; running time: 118 minutes.

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