By John Mulderig
NEW YORK (CNS) — Somewhere inside writer-director Dan Fogelman’s drama “Life Itself” (Amazon/Stage 6) lurk the makings of a good movie.
But these potentially pleasing elements are weighed down by, if not entirely buried under, layers of pretentiousness and sentimentality.
A few of the complicated narrative’s plot developments, moreover, are shocking. And Fogelman presents at least one ill-defined domestic situation requiring careful moral discernment. The result is a film with which even some adult viewers may be uncomfortable.
“Life Itself” is a collection of interlocking, intergenerational stories connected by a turn of events the explanation of which would amount to a spoiler. But it can safely be said that the earliest chapters in the saga concern the romance of college sweethearts Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), their marriage and the happy anticipation with which they look forward to the arrival of their first child.
Since Abby is an almost fixated Bob Dylan fan, they intend to name their daughter in his honor. (The maladroit use to which Dylan’s music, specifically his 1997 album “Time Out of Mind,” is put is one of the problems undermining “Life Itself.”)
The next portion of the picture follows Dylan’s life both as a little girl (Kya Kruse) and an adult (Olivia Cooke), and links her destiny to that of a Spanish family — dad Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), mom Isabel (Laia Costa) and son Rodrigo (first Adrian Marrero, then Alex Monner) — through a fateful visit they pay to her native New York.
It’s back in Spain that a shadow falls over Javier and Isabel’s initially blissful bond as they become financially dependent on Javier’s boss, wealthy gentleman farmer Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas), who is in love with Isabel. The unusual arrangement they eventually reach may or may not contradict the permanence of a valid marriage — conclusive evidence on this score is lacking.
The need for hope and perseverance in the face of tragedy is the movie’s underlying message, one that’s obviously in accord with Gospel values. But instead of allowing the sometimes-melodramatic events to speak for themselves, Fogelman heavy-handedly tries to drive home a superfluous interpretation of what they mean.
Catholic viewers will note occasional religious imagery in the background as well as the fact that the crucial venue in which the most important event in “Life Itself” unfolds, and to which we return more than once, lies opposite a church.
The film contains brief scenes of suicide and accidental death with gore, mature themes including abortion, drug use, a premarital situation, an ambivalent treatment of marriage, a few uses of profanity, a couple of milder oaths as well as pervasive rough and much crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.