You may have already guessed this, based on the fact that it comes from the showrunner of NBC's three-hanky weeper This Is Us, but the generation-spanning ensemble drama Life Itself is no gentle, quiet trip to the movies. The film, out Sept. 21, is packed with trauma and tragedy, some of it dropped into the audience's lap in conspicuously happy moments, some of it creeping in like a cold draft. If Life Itself feels somewhat relentlessly bleak to you at times, that's intentional on the part of writer/director Dan Fogelman.
"If you’re going to make something that tries and takes people to their knees and shows that the human experience is as dark and tragic and sad as it can be, [but] can also be wildly beautiful and hope can be found within it," the filmmaker says, sipping coffee in a hotel meeting room at the Toronto International Film Festival, "I don’t think you can just pull the punches on its existence. And you wanna shake the audience and say, 'OK, I’m going to make you witness something you don’t like happening to characters that you do like.'"
And indeed, the cast is filled with actors who you probably like a lot, from Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde as an expectant couple to Annette Bening as a calm and collected therapist to Antonio Banderas as the owner of an olive farm in Andalusia, Spain. (Yes, all these characters are connected. No spoilers as to how.) If someone is on screen for more than a few minutes in Life Itself, you can bank on something not-so-nice befalling them, ranging from the inconvenient to the catastrophic. Fogelman is betting on you caring about them anyway, and he has reason to, based on the way fans of his series feel about the perpetually doomed Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia).
And like that of the series, the movie's tone ranges intensely, which was also essential to Fogelman's vision. "Like, at times, the movie plays really comedically and really funny and other times, there’s really horrific sadness and tragedy and silence in a movie theater," he explains. "And it’s a really challenging ride, and it’s how I view life."
The director recalls losing one of his close friends over the past year and experiencing a full gamut of emotions in the event's wake. "His funeral was one of four days in my life I’ll never forget," says Fogelman. "At the same point, it was also joyous and celebratory, and I experienced some of the biggest laughs I have in my entire life."
In critical assessment of the movie, however, the sadness and tragedy seem to be winning the battle. And several reviews assert that the strings, as it were, are a little too visible. "In Life Itself the parental slaughter is downright wanton," A.O. Scott wrote in his New York Times review. "You wouldn’t exactly call it carelessness, since all the bereavement seems to have been arranged with meticulous care." In The Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips called the movie "an emotional mugging."
Even more, in the film, the positive outcomes of trauma are fairly literal and, in most cases, utterly coincidental. It's safe to say that most survivors don't experience trauma that way; it's not necessarily easy to point to a specific thing you gained from experiencing a loss, whatever recovery looks like. When I ask Fogelman what he hopes the movie says to people having trouble finding the positivity in their situations, he says, "I think there’s magic in this — that’s speaking kind of thematically — that can be kind of aspirational or give people more of a reason to move forward ... Even if you haven’t found it yet, if you go further, you can find love and hope and optimism again."
Whether that's true for everyone or not, mainstream moviegoers may be more amenable to the way Life Itself preys on emotions than critics have been. And indeed, Fogelman's sentimental storytelling has undoubtedly produced a television series with a broad and passionate fanbase. He acknowledges that This Is Us attempts to strike the balance between prestige and populist, adding that "things that move people, that are populist tend to be regarded as not high quality."
"I think that stuff that makes you feel it’s gotten increasingly out of vogue the last 10 years as the world has gotten a little bit darker," he says. "I don’t know exactly when our switch went off and we became a little bit more cynical. I think the internet had a great amount to do with it especially when it comes to our art."
Some reviewers have accused Life Itself of cynicism, however, due to the somewhat systematic way it dispatches characters. And others have alleged that it's disproportionately cruel to its women. "The guys get to be epically romantic or foolishly proud or hopelessly lovelorn," Angie Han wrote for Mashable. "They're masters of their own destinies. When one meets the love of his life, it's described as the most important day of his life — who knows or cares what the most important day of her life might be?"
So was Fogelman ever concerned with the optics of what the female characters in the story endure? (For the record, this includes illness, sudden violent death, and off-screen childhood sexual abuse.) "No, I mean, only because I see such light in those characters," he says. "You know, the things that happen to them in the film, happen to people in life. Victims of trauma often beget... often are scarred by that trauma and have a hard time coming back from it."
Though its cyclical tragedy makes Life Itself difficult for some viewers to love, that's basically its very reason for existing. In this venture, Fogelman says he intentionally tried to "stretch the comfort zone of an audience [to see] how much darkness, how much lightness they can tolerate." You'll have to watch the film yourself to see where you fall.