I do not really like movies that exist merely to emotionally manipulate me. I am willing to cry if a film is able to build a good enough connection through all of the Aristotelian criteria to earn the tragedy, large or small. I will be angry, however, if a movie seems to exist solely to make me cry (I’m looking at you, Forrest Gump.)
I walked into Life Itself having seen the trailer both on television and before some previously-viewed movies. I knew what I was walking into. The trailer didn’t pull any punches as to what it was going to be. It was going to be driven by high emotion. There is a reason they blitzed This Is Us with advertising for this movie. Sometimes This Is Us edges toward the cry/anger line for me. I was braced for what two hours of Fogelman might bring about.
I think it was a really good idea to knock a viewer like me off balance in the opening minutes. I wasn’t expecting to laugh that hard, and laugh I did. Laying out the theme of the film in such a comedic way did that whole Shakespearean thing of lowering my defenses with laughter so it seemed less sappy later. I am not sure that the college paper bit was needed. That was a bit heavy-handed and seemed to be a sign that the diretor, perhaps, did not trust his audience to get it without a decoder ring. I think it’s a stronger film without that bit, but I usually think that trusting the audience is a better move.
The cinematography by DP Brad Pawlak was beautiful and was very careful in guiding the audience’s eye. This was particularly important early on. The main cast for each act was ridiculously strong, giving honest performances of difficult material without seeming as if they were playing for the reaction. I am fairly certain that Oscar Isaac can do no wrong and isn’t Jean Smart having something of a big screen breakthough this year!
My main criticism comes with the movies final act. I do not feel that it was as earned. It was rushed and I didn’t really get a chance to care that everything had led to this one final truth. Due to this pacing problem, the denouement felt rushed and I was unsatisfied. In retrospect, the final turn was clearly built throughout the film, but it still was not given a chance to settle at the end.
I’m not mad at Life Itself and I don’t really understand the cold shoulder it is getting critically. It seems that, unlike my preference, many would prefer that tear-jerker films do nothing but make us cry. Leave style variations and timeline devices for the high drama flicks and just make us cry. In refusing to do so, the film gets accused of trying too hard.
I don’t want to sit through any film that isn’t trying hard. Honestly, “I’m not mad at it” is probably as high of praise as I am ever going to offer a cryer film. This isn’t inherently my type of film, but I can appreciate that it was creative and well executed. If cryers are your type of thing, give Life Itself a shot.