Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

A frequently-heard criticism of a movie is that it was “manipulative,” which by itself is a critique that does not actually make a lot of sense.  All movies, and stories in general, are manipulative by their very nature.  They use performances and dialogue and action to make the audience feel a certain way.  It is not always a bad thing.  Think of The Godfather, for example.  That movie manipulates us into sympathizing with and cheering for characters whom we would be terrified of if we ran across them in real life.  The difference is that good movies are better at hiding their manipulations and manipulating us without us realizing that they are doing so, while lesser movies wear their manipulation on their sleeves.  The new drama Life Itself definitely falls into the latter category, even though it did have me hooked in for the first half.

The movie really is the story of two halves.  As it opens, we are introduced to a man named Will who was recently released from a mental hospital after he struggled to cope when his wife left him six months earlier.  He reluctantly shares the story of he and his wife Abby with a therapist with a court-mandated therapist.  We see flashes back to Will and Abby’s life together from their blossoming friendship and romance in college to their preparations for parenthood, leading right up until their sudden separation.  This plot thread takes us through the first half of the movie, only to then move across continents to focus on a completely different set of protagonists in the movie’s second half.

It is at this point that we are introduced to Mr. Saccione, the Spanish-Italian owner of a lucrative olive-oil business who promotes his best worker Javier to foreman and provides him with a home for him and his young wife Isabel.  As the years go on, Javier and Isabel raise their son Rodrigo, but when Javier begins to suspect that Mr. Saccione is moving in on his love, everything falls apart.

It is the second half of the movie where Life Itself begins to fall apart.  Not only does it face the challenge of introducing an entirely new set of protagonists halfway through, but the segment opens with a long-winded soliloquy by Antonio Banderas’ Mr. Saccione that grinds the movie straight to a halt.  Coming directly after some climatic emotional beats at the conclusion of the Will and Abby storyline, this sudden shift in tone, location, and character cuts the movie’s legs right out from under it.  It is not that these two storylines don’t connect, but instead of being woven together throughout the structure of the movie, they are segmented, which makes them feel more disconnected than the film is going for.

What I think made the movie’s first half work much better than the second half is that it did a better job of blending its drama with comedy, as well as providing characters that are compelling and entertaining. Will and Abby are played by Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde, and they are the clear standouts of the film.  Their chemistry is off-the-charts and Isaac, especially, delivers the movie’s cheesiest romantic dialogue with such conviction that you totally believe that his character feels these things he is expressing.  And Olivia Wilde’s Abby was so convincing in her conviction for Bob Dylan’s 1997 album “Time Out of Mind” that I was immediately compelled to download it.

This first half of the film also plays with the concept of the unreliable narrator, which adds a certain level of mystery to the storyline that keeps us interested.  In contrast, the film’s second half is straight drama and plays out much more like a soap opera.

By the end of the movie when the stories are being tied together, all subtlety goes out the window.  The most blatant moment comes when there is a conversation between two characters who have spoken Spanish to each other throughout the movie, but when the movie wants to drive the emotion home it has them suddenly speak to each other in English.  What’s even stranger about this is that the narrator has just told us that this is a moment that “doesn’t need translation,” which begs the question: why did they translate it?  It is as if the filmmakers intended to have them simply speak Spanish without subtitles, allowing the actors’ faces to tell the story for us non-Spanish speakers, but then didn’t have the guts to go through with it.

Life Itself really is the tale of two movies and even though both are clearly attempting to manipulate the audience, the first half is much better at distracting us from that, while the second half can at times feel like a hammer to the head.  And because that is the second half, the movie falls down rather than rises up.  It is a shame, too, because it wasted some compelling performances.

Life Itself opens today at the AMC Kent Station 14, the AMC Southcenter 16, and the Landing Stadium 14 in Renton.

Find tickets and showtimes on Fandango.
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