The film is hard to take at face value because it’s so intent on tricking the viewer in one scene and then spoon-feeding them details in the next. Banderas’s monologue—a lovely piece of acting—ultimately exists mostly as a misdirect, designed to settle things down after the movie’s most sudden, and upsetting, shock moment. The plot in Life Itself is precisely calibrated, intended either to disturb or to provoke tears—but the film is presented as an ode to romance and the connections that bind us as human beings. To Fogelman, revealing the exact nature of those connections is just another way to make the audience gasp.
Between Life Itself and This Is Us, I’ve never encountered a writer more continually thrilled by the revelation that one person might be related to another. Without spoiling too heavily, I can confirm that many characters played by the talented ensemble of Life Itself (which also includes Olivia Cooke, Mandy Patinkin, Laia Costa, Annette Bening, and Jean Smart) are family, even if they sometimes don’t know it. I can also confirm that many of those characters die in miserably tragic circumstances, just like poor Milo Ventimiglia on This Is Us.
I wish I could report that Life Itself doesn’t seem creepily delighted with just how surprising its cavalcade of mortality is. But there are two plot points—one hinging on a freak accident and the other on a suicide—that are indefensible, that serve only to stun the viewer into submission. Fogelman’s script is obsessed with how a single event can reverberate across generations, but rather than pick up on something small, he devises something indisputably horrifying. When a person dies, Life Itself argues, it can shape many other peoples’ lives. No kidding.
The film’s most insufferable character is Will, the kind of romantic protagonist who says any thought that comes into his head. He’s in therapy after Abby left him (or … did she?), just as the couple’s relationship was about to progress to the next level. Will’s therapist, played by Bening, is trying to drill down to some deeper emotional truth with him. But during their sessions, Will can’t help but jump on passing tangents, so the film is laden with flashbacks, some more truthful than others.
Will and Abby’s relationship is borderline toxic, even as Will reflects on it with rose-tinted glasses. When Abby flirts with him at a college party, he informs her that he’s waiting to ask her out, because he knows that once he does, “there’s not gonna be any turning back for me … It’s gonna be the most important moment of my life.” Rather than react with horror to this declaration, Abby is charmed (or … is she?). As their relationship progresses in Will’s memory, it’s suggested that some of his recollections might not be entirely accurate, but the film pushes that possibility aside in the name of an even more appalling development.