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'Life Itself' review: All the stories are deadly

Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde are a too-precious-for-words

Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde are a too-precious-for-words couple in "Life Itself." Credit: Amazon Studio/Jon Pack

PLOT A dozen or so lives intersect over time and across continents.

CAST Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas

RATED R (language, bloodshed)


BOTTOM LINE The creator of television’s misty-eyed “This Is Us” delivers another emotionally heaving story about everything and everybody.

Where to begin with ‘Life Itself,” a movie so broadly, sweepingly, cosmically conceived that its very title implodes with lack of meaning? The first thing to know is that it’s written and directed by Dan Fogelman, creator of NBC’s heart-tugging series “This Is Us” and the screenwriter behind 2011’s earnest romantic dramedy “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” If you thought those projects had an ungainly emotional and narrative sprawl, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Fogelman’s “Life Itself” seems to include almost every single thought and feeling he has ever had.

It starts with Samuel L. Jackson narrating a tale about a young gay football fan and his therapist (Annette Bening), but no — this turns out to be a screenplay in the head of Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac). After our initial confusion wears off, we realize that Will is actually talking to his therapist (still Annette Bening) about his wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde). She was magical, vibrant, one of a kind — or at least that’s Will’s opinion. Others might say they were both a pair of precious, self-amused New Yorkers, the kind who name their cute little dog an obscenity and attend costume parties dressed as Uma Thurman and John Travolta from “Pulp Fiction.” (That’s a clue, by the way: Fogelman gets his penchant for colorful monologues from Quentin Tarantino, though he writes them like Cameron Crowe.)

Their daughter, Dylan Dempsey (Olivia Cooke), grows into an angry adolescent who dyes her hair and plays outdated hard-core punk — exactly the cliché we’d expect — but before we get to truly dislike her, we are whisked off to another story. This one takes place in Spain, where a wealthy olive farmer (Antonio Banderas) falls for another man’s wife, Isabel (Laia Costa). Isabel’s son, Rodrigo (played as a teenager by Alex Monner), will become the father of this movie’s narrator. (No, not Samuel L. Jackson, a different narrator.)

Mind blown, yet? The message here lies in Abby’s college thesis about the literary device known as the unreliable narrator. “Life itself,” she says in a giddy epiphany, “is an unreliable narrator.” That’s a pretty good example of what this movie considers to be a profound and moving observation. Subconsciously, though, Fogelman might have put the most accurate words into the mouth of Isabel. “I’m not sure whose story I’m telling,” she says. “I’m not sure of anything.”

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