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This is bus - 'Life Itself'

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There’s nothing wrong with a film trying to play on your emotions. Oftentimes, our whole purpose in going to the movies is to feel. The cinema is inherently manipulative, whether we’re talking visually, emotionally or what have you. I have no problem with a movie pushing my emotional buttons.

But that evocation needs to be earned. If it isn’t, you’re left with something shallow and unsatisfying. When we’re constantly aware of the buttons being pushed, it all begins to feel a bit cynical.

It begins to feel like Dan Fogelman’s “Life Itself.”

This movie, written and directed by Fogelman, the auteur of TV weepiness that brought you “This is Us” among others, is utterly shameless in its willingness to do whatever it takes to elicit the desired emotional response. There’s an unpleasant directness to it all, as if it can all be boiled down to rote execution of instructions from a manual. The narrative lacks any sort of real direction and the performances are lackluster – all this movie has is its weird, almost gleeful hammering of the aforementioned buttons.

There are a number of interconnected stories being told here, although none of them are particularly well-constructed or even fully coherent. Basically, they revolve around (SPOILER ALERT) Olivia Wilde getting hit by a bus. Every one of the narratives is built around that one tragic event – a tragic event replayed and revisited so often as to become almost comical.

In one story, you’ve got Will (Oscar Isaac, “Operation Finale”) struggling with the loss of his wife Abby (Wilde). He’s been recently released from an institution; as part of the terms of that release, he must meet with a therapist – in this case, Dr. Morris (Annette Bening, “The Seagull”). He talks about his wife in terms of her having left him, but it doesn’t become clear just what that means until later.

In another story, you’ve got Dylan (Olivia Cooke, “Ready Player One”), a rebellious young woman whose actions worry her grandparents Irwin (Mandy Patinkin, “Wonder”) and Linda (Jean Smart, TV’s “Legion”). They’ve raised Dylan, but she has always struggled with the absence of her parents – Will and Abby. Dylan is aimless and sad, wandering through a life she’s not sure she even wants.

From there, it’s off to the Spanish countryside, where wealthy landowner Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas, TV’s “Genius”) has invited the hardworking Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta, TV’s “The Zone”) to become his foreman. Javier and his love Isabel (Laia Costa, “Maine”) can finally start a family, but it’s soon apparent that Mr. Saccione has motives that, while innocent, are still problematic.

And then Javier and Isabel’s kid Rodrigo (Alex Monner, TV’s “I Know Who You Are”) grows up and goes to school in America – specifically NYU – and winds up meeting face to face with someone whose fate has been intertwined with his for years.

Again – it all revolves around (SPOILER ALERT AGAIN) Olivia Wilde getting hit by a bus. That’s the salient plot point that ties this whole bunch of nonsense together. This comically tragic event is what binds these various narratives to one another. It is ridiculous on its face and even more ridiculous when you’re sitting there watching it.

“Life Itself” offers the sort of mawkish manipulation you more often see on the small screen – the sort Fogelman has built his television career on. Does that sort of over-the-top emotional trickery work better in episodic TV? It does, because the feelings have time to breathe. In this particular cinematic setting, however, the waves keep crashing until the viewer is left largely numb to their impact. At that point, all you can do is laugh.

And laugh I did.

The astonishing part is that Fogelman was able to make such a terrible movie with such a talented cast. Oscar Isaac is an immensely talented actor. Wilde brings an underrated presence to the screen. You’ve got absolute legends like Annette Bening, Jean Smart, Mandy Patinkin and Antonio Banderas in supporting roles of various size and meatiness. Even the lesser-known actors (well, to American audiences, anyway) seem to be quite gifted.

And yet none of it matters because Fogelman’s story is disjointed and clumsy. The pacing is all over the place. There’s zero sense of time or place; the story ostensibly travels across a fairly wide span of years, yet everything appears to be exactly the same across the board.

Still, the movie’s biggest sin is its overabundance of schmaltz and sappiness. It’s all just so … cheesy. There’s no reason to care about any of the characters because the people telling the story so clearly don’t care about them. They’re all just cogs in the manipulation machine, means to an end. Fogelman churns all these feelings into a bland slurry of montages and voiceovers and feeds them to his audience.

“Life Itself” isn’t bad because it’s melodramatic or manipulative. It’s bad because it can’t tell a coherent story or create a single believable character. It isn’t bad because it’s sad. It’s bad because it’s, well … bad. Really bad.

This is bus.

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Last modified on Monday, 24 September 2018 12:57

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