Not to be confused with Roger Ebert’s autobiography, or anything good, actually, “Life Itself” is an emotional mugging, not a movie. Writer-director Dan Fogelman, creator of NBC-TV’s warm bath of feels “This is Us,” tells his story in five chapters and a million platitudes. When a key character admits he’s “smothering,” it’s not just his fictional self he’s acknowledging; it’s the entire greezy script. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, Fogelman exploits “Make You Feel My Love” (from “Time Out of Mind”) with such ruthless sensitivity, when Bob Dylan’s song is reprised in Spanish, the movie becomes a convicted pathos felon in two languages.
Briefly, because life (itself) beckons:
The valiant Oscar Isaac plays Will, a recently institutionalized writer who is seeing a therapist (Annette Bening, gravely outclassing her material). Olivia Wilde portrays Abby, the blessing of Will’s existence, frequently the subject of adoring montages. Will and Abby are no longer together. No spoilers here, but we’ll note that three times in “Life Itself,” a character steps into a Manhattan street and either avoids a fatal collision with an oncoming vehicle, or doesn’t.
Other storylines include a romantic triangle in Andalusia, Spain, featuring Antonio Banderas as a wealthy olive farmer in love with the saintly wife (Laia Costa) of his salt-of-the-earth foreman (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). The child born into this chapter follows his destiny and, relocating to New York, meets his heart’s desire, a young woman introduced in a separate chapter. Criss-cross! “Babel”! “Crash”! Why are these puzzle movies so infernally contrived?
No need to detail the screenplay’s ornately fancy architecture. Actor after actor takes on “Life Itself” and cannot win, including Mandy Patinkin (who feels all the feels so you don’t have to) and Olivia Cooke as Will and Abby’s brooding daughter, a walking, nattering Bob Dylan reference named, yes, Dylan. Fogelman’s tone isn’t all over the place; it’s all over several places, throwing jocular asides regarding mental illness and child molestation up against gauzy, golden nonverbal vignettes depicting frolicking couples and soulful pre-teens staring at the camera. Too many stray touches here belong to a Fidelity Investments ad, or a pushy yet empathetic marketing campaign for a pain reliever. “Life Itself” delivers the pain and the pain relief.
More than once the voiceover narration — near the end it’s revealed who, exactly, is speaking — sticks up for the “unabashedly populist” appeal of that recurring Dylan song and, by inference, the film itself. The intended appeal of “Life Itself” is not so far from “This is Us.” The result is closer to “Honestly, It’s Not.”
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“Life Itself” — 1 star
MPAA rating: R (for language including sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use)
Running time: 1:58