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LIFE ITSELF: Fogleman fumbles

Don’t let the previews fool you -- “Life Itself” is not a happy movie; if you show up expecting one, you’re going to want your money back.

Personally, I didn’t foresee either happy or sad; but I sure expected something better from Dan Fogelman.

He’s the writer behind Disney’s sensational “Tangled,” 2011’s “Crazy Stupid Love” and TV’s popular “This Is Us.”

“Life Itself,” by contrast, is a mess. In both tone and structure it’s all over the place, with an uninspired conclusion that’s scarcely worth all the ups and downs.

The cheerful previews feature Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde in what seems to be a soulful love story; but this only hints at the actual plot, which takes so many left turns that it winds up with five different strands. And though we sense Fogelman will tie them together, the individual segments are so depressing and unevenly constructed that you soon come to distrust him as a storyteller.

This problem shows up in the very first scene, which made me wonder if I’d wandered into the wrong theater: There’s no sign of Isaac or Wilde, and instead we’re listening to Samuel L. Jackson, who isn’t even billed. This opening gambit is so weird that one never quite recovers from the disorientation.

No doubt Fogelman is doing this on purpose, in keeping with his overstated theme of the unreliable narrator -- but actually, I’m not sure he understands that device. An “unreliable narrator” is one who can’t be trusted to give correct information, either through ignorance or deception.

Fogelman seems to think it means that he must keep yanking the rug out from under us -- or charging off in some new direction. Or both. He wants to insist, like one character, that life itself is an unreliable narrator, and he certainly nails his point about chaos and suffering; but you can’t call life a “narrator”: It’s like saying life is an allegory, or a simile. It makes no sense.

Worse yet, “Life Itself” actually does have a narrator, and though we don’t learn her identity till later, she is neither ignorant nor deceptive.

Compounding all this is helter-skelter storytelling in the individual vignettes; there’s a fake screenplay, a flashback, a flashback within a flashback and a 10-minute life story that is simply narrated by the actor. And the movie’s final speech is a heavy-handed message by an Italian character -- which the screenplay claims “needed no translation.” Yet it then proceeds to translate the entire thing, which boils down to this: “If life brings you to your knees, you get up and go farther.”

Frankly, this would have been better left unstated.

Despite these missteps, the movie is reasonably interesting, and Fogelman gets fine performances from an ensemble cast, highlighted by Olivia Cooke as an angry teen, Mandy Patinkin as a kindly grandfather, Antonio Banderas as a wealthy olive-grower and Sergio Peris-Mencheta as one of Banderas’ employees.

But it’s no good having a great cast when the writing fails so badly. Fogelman can do better.

“Life Itself,”

Written & directed by Dan Fogelman

Run time: 118 min.

* * (out of four)

Rated R for language including sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use

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