“Life Itself” presents a vignette view into the slice of life genre.
The film, written and directed by Dan Fogelman, centers around four generations of a family, most of whom have little to no interaction with each other due to particularly tragic circumstances. It opens with a sequence narrated by Samuel L. Jackson proclaiming a therapist as “the hero of the story.” She soon gets hit by a bus and the sequence terminates to reveal Will Dempsey, a depressed man imagining the aforementioned sequence. His therapist happens to be the one who dies in the opening sequence.
Dempsey and his therapist go on a rapturous account of Dempsey’s ended marriage, the reason for Dempsey’s depression. He tells of only the good times, but all is not what it seems. The therapist pokes and prods and gets Will to realize that his wife did not leave him. She died, but their baby survived. At this world-shattering suggestion, which is the truth, he pulls out a gun and blows his brains out, right in front of his therapist.
The action then centers on his daughter Dylan, who never meets either of her parents and his raised by her grandfather, played by Mandy Patinkin. Her increasing magnet-pull toward tragedy transforms Dylan from a girl who could grow to be well-adjusted and normalized to a woman who disdains society and finds comfort in counterculture. After a wild night on the town, she happens to find herself at the same corner where her mother was hit by a bus.
After a brief vision, we are then focused on characters that we don’t immediately understand the importance of, the Gonzalez family. They are Spanish, middle-class and mostly happy until Señora Gonzales gets very ill. Her son, Rodrigo, attends college in New York and doesn’t get to say goodbye to his mother one last time. On the same day, he meets Dylan Dempsey, the woman who would become his wife.
The film concludes with a message about “how life can get you down, but you should get back up.” This view is particularly optimistic in after the long string of misery and despair that follows the family around. One could argue that the film is actually a nihilist commentary. It’s important to define what a nihilist is, because popular culture has skewed the word. Nihilists don’t believe that the world sucks. Nihilists believe that nothing matters. The universe isn’t trying to get you. There is no overlying purpose to the world. The world just exists.
The reason that “Life Itself” is not an incredible celebration of how life has a purpose is that ultimately purpose is a constructed idea. The film wants moviegoers to feel good after a family has been wrought by so much tragedy but in reality, and by its own example, it doesn’t want us to view these horrible events as tragedy, but rather as simply events that happen.
“Life Itself” is presented in such a fashion that the audience feels almost like a fly on the wall or being told an inspiring speech at a seminar. The commentary throughout the film is purely for informative purposes and doesn’t really say much. That is not to say that the film is bad by any measure of the word. Moviegoers should simply be aware that the film is told more in a documentary style than a traditional narrative style.
This movie is one that anyone should see because it provides a realistic, if not grim, take on the way life functions, independent of cultural ideas. “Life Itself” receives an 85 percent rating.