"Life Itself" (two films, reviews)

“Life Itself”: layered intergenerational and international story reminds me of “Cloud Atlas” and “Babel” (and of Roger Ebert)

“Life Itself” seemed like a duplicate movie title right off the bat – because in 2014 it had been the name of a documentary (dir. Steve James) of film critic Roger Ebert with the dedicated support of his wife Chaz during his last days after incredibly brutal cancer surgery – even his “leave of presence” one day before he passed away. Ebert is still honored by his review site which lives on. In fact, the site has a review by Monica Castillo of this 2018 film which I saw last night and will tackle now.

The film, directed by Dan Fogelman, partly produced in Spain with European resources, is like a layered soap opera, with a main point that random events draw people together and set up their lives.  In this way, it reminds me of the much larger (Tom Tywker) 2012 film “Cloud Atlas”. Another comparison might be Alejandro Gonzalez’s “Babel” (2006), with Brad Pitt.

The narrative is a big choppy, and sometimes flashbacks are shown with characters (especially Will, played by Oscar Isaac) duplicated by younger selves in the same set.

But essentially the film (formally divided into six “chapters”) has two major parts.  The first part seems to take place in the 1980s in New York City as Will struggles to become a screenwriter. He has a great relationship with his pregnant wife Abbey (Olivia Wilde) until a random tragedy: she gets hit by a bus after running recklessly into the street during a discussion. The baby, Dylan (Kya Kruse) will survive – and I’ll get back to that in a moment. (All of this is so out-of-sequence.) Will has a breakdown, is hospitalized, and released only if he undergoes therapy (Annette Benning).  But the individual therapy becomes so challenging that he executes himself right in front of the therapist with a concealed handgun.

Abbey had worked on a thesis in a literature master’s program, where she wrote about “unreliable narrators” in novels as omniscient observers. “Life itself” becomes a narrator, she tried to argue.

Dylan, raised by an abusive uncle (mandatory family responsibility) and then grandparents, grows up to be rebellious but promising in the underground acid rock music scene.

In the meantime, in rural Abdalucia, Spain, Vincent Saccione (Antonio Banderas), himself Italian, inherits a huge amount of olive-growing land through a fluke with a will. He hires Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), after a long conversation (in Spanish with the usual subtitles) in which Javier rejects “friendship” and expresses moral suspicion of the inheritance. Javier runs the ranch and marries Isabel (Laia Costa) and they have a son Rodrigo. When they go to New York on vacation, Rodrigo happens to witness the bus accident from inside the bus, and it traumatizes him – tying the parts of the film together.

Isabel develops breast cancer and gradually approaches death. Rodrigo grows into adulthood (in one sequence, several years of maturation are shown as he runs through an olive field) and goes to NYU. He seems to become an outstanding, charismatic attractive young man (now played by Barcelona native Alex Monner).  He definitely fits in to the “young people will win” crowd.

Rodrigo dates a somewhat frivolous (white) girl who claims he got her pregnant and that they will have a mixed race baby (sorry –  Rodrigo is as white as she is – European Spaniards are Caucasian, and some have Nordic ancestors). Then she proposes an abortion. Rodrigo is offended by her joking and breaks up with her, and soon meets Dylan.

The result is a big family, producing another young female scholar who will argue the “Life Itself” theory at a book signing party.

Samuel L. Jackson makes a cameo as himself at the beginning.

As I watched the film, I made a mental comparison to material in my own screenplay “Do Ask, Do Tell: Epiphany”.  A character based on “me” is abducted and winds up on a space station connected to an O’Neill Cylinder.  Through a mixture of “remote viewing” and technology, and visits to other characters “I” meet in the Cylinder (some of them are permitted to “de-age” temporarily) “I” connect the loose ends from my own life and find out where “we” are headed – and yes, you don’t want to become a “Leftover”.

Name:  “Life Itself”

Director, writer: Dan Fogelman

Released: 2018

Format: 2.35:1

When and how viewed: Angelika Mosaic, 2018/10/3, late, small audience

Length: 110

Rating: R

Companies:Amazon Studios, FilmNation; even though this is from Amazon, it will not be available for sale until early 2019

This would be a good place to revisit the 2014 like-named "Life Itself" directed by Steve James, from CNN Films and Magnolia Pictures. I saw it in a theater (Landmark I think). The film presents the painful last years of the life of film critic Roger Ebert, whose thyroid cancer was first diagnosed in 2006.  He eventually underwent hideous surgeries, losing his entire jaw. His wife (in a mixed-race marriage) was indeed indredibly dedicated. The film gets painful to watch, as he has to be tube-fed even as he continues to do movie reviews.

At the end of his life, at age 70, he took a "leave of presence" on the last day of his life in April 2013.  When I was growing up in the 50s, a teenager at church had thyroid cancer, which proved fatal. 

A website of comprehenisve movie reviews, rogerebert.com, continues in his name and does well.