"This is Us" has emerged as one of Tamara and my favorite shows on Television. If you love that show, it's very likely you'll like the new film from its creator, LIFE ITSELF.
But if you're like me, you might not like it at first. Writer/Director Dan Fogelman introduces a vast array of characters in a style that felt uncomfortable for a long stretch.
It's opening moments seem to be a dazed feverdream, like Tarantino and one of his favorite narrators creating a love story. When the deceit of that construct is revealed, it didn't endear me to the film, it made me dig into not liking it. At least for its first hour.
We meet Will. He's deep in despair and longing for his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) who has left him six months before. Oscar Issac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina) is a terrific actor. He's so good as Will that you feel the depth of his depression as he relates his feelings to his psychiatrist Cait (Annette Bening in a small but powerful role).
The story flashes back and forth, showing the couple as they meet in college, then at marriage, then in their last day together, then back in college.
Fogelman is going for something in his construct, trying to ask us to look at how we look at people in relationships, how we perceive those we love, and how we often see them as we desire them to be versus how they actually are.
The story then flashes forward to meet Abby and Will's daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke) at different ages in her life.
As its first hour wrapped, the story takes a dramatic turn and moves to Spain, where we meet the wealthy owner of an olive plantation and one of his best workers. The owner is Mr. Saccione, played by Antonio Banderas in a terrific performance. I should have been mad that the film suddenly shifted half way around the world, but Banderas is SO good, he draws you into this story immediately.
Saccione has asked to sit down with his best field worker Javier. A quiet man, he takes twice as long but does twice the work as his fellow team members. The conversation between worker and owner is the best crafted sequence in the movie as Javier and Saccione reveal themselves to be very different men.
Sergio Peris-Mencheta (Snowfall) is very good as the younger man. When he falls in love with local waitress Isabelle (a terrific Laia Costa) their story takes over the film as we watch their lives unfold, events pulling Saccione closer into their orbit.
Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart are great as Abby's parents in the first half. The cast is flawless.
Just about the time that I stopped thinking about how all these lives would finally intersect, Fogelman delivers that moment honestly. It's not a surprise, but the ripples of the moment reach far further than I had anticipated.
For anyone that's suffered a major loss in their lives, there are moments here that are really almost unbearable. Fogelman captures despair and sadness all-too-well on paper and his actors bring it to life.
The last twenty minutes bring all the pieces together and serve up some powerful moments. I really liked the final chapter and Tamara loved it.
Like LIFE ITSELF, its far from a perfect. The film's flow can feel forced, clunky or rewarding depending on your flexibility as a viewer.
I could do without ALL of the narration. Surely the powerful words Fogelman writes for these actors and the songs of Bob Dylan throughout tell us all we need to know.
But when Abby tells Will that she's not sure she's equipped to be loved as much as he loves her, or Patinkin struggles to convey grief and hope to his granddaughter, the movie transcends the construct and becomes something special.
Critics hated it. It had one of the lowest opening weekends at the box office in history for a film opening in this many theatres.
After an hour, I wasn't sure how I felt about it, but certainly by the end, it got me.
If you've ever found your plan for life turned upside down by the reality of a sudden death or a painful twist of real life intruding on your best laid plans, prepare yourself to relive it and maybe gain a little insight on just how it is you got through.
Tamara and I loved it. If you are a "This Is Us" fan, my bet is you will too.
LIFE ITSELF gets a B.