Remember when that certain type of commercial first debuted a dozen or so years ago? It would have a thoughtful yet warm voice over, shots of regular people doing regular things. Maybe one was lonely, one was giving birth, one had aching joints, and another had a long shift doing an honest day’s work. But something drew these people together, in soft-focus golden light. Maybe it was a Hallmark card to a widow. Or a pat on the back from a co-worker. Or an invitation to a meal. These short, brilliant odes to life itself could make me cry in less than thirty seconds.
Now, years later, we’ve all been manipulated by this style of marketing and we are jaded. It is perhaps too late for one of those brilliant odes to the human spirit to be stretched out into a feature length film. So now you have Life Itself, a movie that may as well be accompanied by a sweep of the hand and a declaration that it is about All The Things. It’s about the tragedy, love, and circumstance that bring us all together… giving us at least two catnaps in the process of watching the film.
The film is peppered with a fine cast that does the best they can with what they are given. There’s Oscar Isaac’s uber-romantic (admittedly to stalker-ish levels), emotionally devastated man who is processing a tragedy. There’s Mandy Patinkin’s sensitive grandfather. There’s Antonio Banderas’ olive-orchard owner who, in his quest for success, now realizes he missed the happiness of family. And there are a whole bunch of women who suffer, from orphanhood, to cancer, to being run over by a car. Not to diminish the actresses (among them Olivia Wilde, Olivia Cooke, and Laia Costa) as side characters, because they are not. But bad things happen to them, while the men are left tragically picking up the pieces (older men) or running away (younger men).
This is the type of film that is meant to wring emotion out of helpless audiences. Heck, I’m embarrassed to say that I am constantly manipulated by cheesy Nicolas Sparks movies, for instance. I felt I was an easy mark for a movie like this. But my face was dry at the end of the film. Instead, I found myself thinking things like, “What is this making me think of? Oh! Those dewy Americana tear-jerking commercials with voiceovers!” or “How can there be three generations, but they all look like they live in the same era?” or “Will there really still be bookstores like that in the future? I hope so!” (mind wanders, thinking about bookstores). Olivia Wilde’s character writes her college thesis about unreliable narrators, and heroes and bad guys, and maybe this all supposedly has something to do with that… but then maybe not. Maybe the whole film is its own unreliable squishy sentimental mess that should have been a lot more moving that it was.