Dan Fogelman, creator and executive producer of the hit NBC series “This is Us,” seems to have the television drama formula worked out better than most — a little yank at the heartstrings here, a heartwarming relationship there, a dash of solid character development and throw in some nonlinear storylines. After only two seasons, viewers and critics are eating it up.
As the writer and director behind the feature film “Life Itself,” however, using a similar template is a disastrous exercise in emotional manipulation and pretentious storytelling. It’s the kind of screenplay that needed a few more rounds of workshopping. As is, it should’ve been tossed into a bin of scripts destined to never be seen again.
It’s regrettable since Fogelman, whose first foray into filmmaking was 2015’s Al Pacino vehicle “Danny Collins,” assembles a more-than-capable cast led by Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Olivia Wilde (“Drinking Buddies”). Broken into five muddled and overwritten chapters, the film starts with an introduction to Will (Isaac), a sad sack of a man we see during his happier times when he’s courting the love of his life, Abby (Wilde), but also during his court-mandated counseling sessions with his therapist, Dr. Morris (Annette Bening).
In this chapter, Fogelman pulls out all the stops and crams the melodrama with so many unnecessary and contrived components, one may wonder if he thought he would even get to finish the last four segments. This part of the film includes a nod to the 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” when Will goes back in time to see random moments in the past that will likely shape his future. It’s one of the many times Fogelman needlessly reminds the audience that fate will catch up to everyone eventually.
Fogelman mucks up his clichéd screenplay even more by employing the storytelling technique known as the “unreliable narrator,” a term coined by literary critic Wayne C. Booth in 1961, which argues that a narrator of a story can’t be trusted because he or she is telling it from a single perspective. Fogelman essentially suggests that the storytellers he’s chosen to recollect their own memories might be remembering incorrectly. The decision to include this narrative device is a lazy choice that allows Fogelman to offer moviegoers various interpretations or perspectives of the same scene — scenes that ultimately fall flat.
As the film stumbles into the other chapters, Fogelman abandons most of his filmmaking gimmickry to connect Will and Abby to a host of other characters — their adult daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) and a family living in Spain — but by then it’s fairly evident where everything will end up. Unfortunately, wallowing in a cinematic abyss of tragedy, pain and victimization is better suited for fans of the “Saw” franchise.
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