Many years ago, silent film star Lillian Gish observed: “Hollywood is an emotional Detroit, where you buy a catharsis instead of a car.”
So we know movies are emotionally manipulative, but the much lauded TV writer/director Dan Fogelman (creator of “This Is Us”) pushes the sentimentality envelope too far in this mawkish, multigenerational melodrama.
After a bizarre introduction by Samuel L. Jackson, the first tale involves the ‘perfect’ marriage of New York college sweethearts Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde) and her subsequent pregnancy. Then a freak accident occurs, as lovesick Will woefully relates to his therapist, Dr. Cait Morris (Annette Bening).
When she grows up, their angst-filled daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) – named after Bob, whose song “Make You Feel My Love” is repeatedly used – becomes a punk rocker with a group called PB&J, much to the consternation of her devoted grandparents (Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart).
A subsequent chapter is devoted to a family in rural Spain; it’s in Spanish with English subtitles.
When conscientious olive-picker Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) is promoted to foreman by wealthy, Manzanilla-sipping landowner Sig. Saccione (Antonio Banderas), he marries his beloved, beatific Isabelle (Laia Costa) and they have an adorable son, Rodrigo. Then tragedy strikes.
When he grows up, haunted Rodrigo (Alex Monner) meets rebellious Dylan – and so the story goes.
While the interconnected families and time shift structure seem to work on NBC’s “This Is Us,” they’re simply capricious and confusing here, as is the abrupt swing from Spanish to English for the pivotal ‘reveal’ scene. And the profound subject of Abby’s dissertation – the literary device of the unreliable narrator – is superficially glib.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Life Itself” is an existentially contrived 5, revolving around the fate’s frustrating unpredictability.