It's difficult to discuss what "Life Itself" is exactly about, because the film, written and directed by "This Is Us" creator Dan Fogelman, is such a twisty, tangled narrative that to describe any aspect of it is to risk spoilers. Besides, going in cold actually enhances the baffling experience of watching this emotionally sadistic film.
The worst thing about the movie is not that it is emotionally sadistic but just how much it wants to be emotionally sadistic — while missing the mark by a mile. Maybe over the course of a series, one could build the kind of attachment to characters in which the morbid scenarios might wring an emotional reaction, but contained within a feature-length running time — and with so much effort showing — it's a grand failure.
It is an exercise in pulling the rug out from under the viewer. The theme of the film is the "unreliable narrator," which is spelled out for us in kindergarten blocks when Abby (Olivia Wilde), in a flashback, declares that her college English thesis is going to be on said literary device. She describes her epiphany to her boyfriend Will (Oscar Isaac): The most reliable narrator is life itself. Or maybe life itself is the most unreliable narrator. It's one or the other, but by the time the movie ends, we no longer care because all meaning has been drained from the phrase.
Fogelman uses his unreliable narrator device like a party trick. He doesn't see it as a way to enhance the story in any way, like unreliable narrators used to great effect in film noir. As a result, the entirety of "Life Itself" is a cheap trick, starting with the trailer. You thought this was a movie about Isaac and Wilde in love? Think again.
Will and Abby do serve as the entry point into the sprawling story. Drunk, crazy Will has recently been released from an institution, participating in mandated sessions with a therapist (Annette Bening). Abby's no longer in his life, and his therapy involves describing the horrors of her rough childhood and writing screenplays like he and Abby used to dream about.
We see snippets of their relationship — declarations of love at frat parties, arguing about Bob Dylan in bed, happy lunches with Will's parents (Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart), wherein his mother is delighted that Abby's parents are dead so she doesn't have to share the grandchildren.
Then, suddenly, we're in Spain, on a bucolic olive farm owned by a philosophical Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas), who has a close connection with the family of his foreman, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), his wife Isabel (Laia Costa) and son Rodrigo (Adrian Marrero). Somehow the family in New York and the family in Spain are going to come together, simply because Fogelman wants to prove he can manipulate the characters like a bunch of very depressing Sims.
"Life Itself" conjures up a lot of questions, but not the existential ones for which Fogelman might be hoping. The questions are more along the lines of "That's it?" The convoluted storytelling fails to camouflage that there's just not that much of a story here.