‘Life Itself’ Film Review: Dan Fogelman’s Roided-Out Tearjerker Is Darkly Satisfying

Toronto 2018: Free from broadcast standards, “This Is Us” creator cuts his sappy sweetness with grim tragedy

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Dan Fogelman is not afraid to explore the darker corners of humanity, but he’s super clear that you’re getting a dump truck full of sugar to make the medicine go down.

At least he has been, with content like NBC’s hit “This Is Us.” That show has to burn through an awful lot of story, and is subject to the standards of broadcast television. But Saturday night at the Toronto Film Festival, at the premiere of his new feature “Life Itself,” Fogelman proved he can find some balance while serving up silly sentiment — by giving you pain and tragedy as only an R-rated movie can.

An A-list army of Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Olivia Wilde and adorable crank Mandy Patinkin were perfectly paired off in early trailers for the film, which seemed to tell the stories of couples and their existential adventures.

We’re happy to report the film is a reverse-engineered family tree of bleakness that is buffered by so much bittersweet love story that you can’t help but get attached. It’s like overhearing some soap-opera-level exposition at the beauty salon or catching pieces of a candid phone call on the metro.

The mom said what? She got hit by a bus? He did it right in the therapist’s office? She attacked her with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

All of these are plausible reactions to “Life Itself,” written and directed by Fogelman.

To describe its plot in detail is to betray the game of the film, but suffice it to say that the sum of its parts are exhilarating. Isaac, considerably famous and respected at this fruitful point in his career, is impressively committed to his plight as lovesick puppy bent on giving wife Wilde the life of her dreams. You think it works?

Newcomer Olivia Cooke is dazzlingly angry and listless as their daughter, struck by her own tragedy. Bening is the perfectly minimal Nancy Meyers-esque therapist helping through questions, and acting as a de facto narrator (something several voices are charged with, including a hilarious and random section given to Samuel L. Jackson).

Fogelman seemed humbled in introducing the film, marveling at TIFF venue Roy Thompson Hall and making the aww-shucks joke that “it looks like a place where Abraham Lincoln gets shot.”

But we’d argue that Fogelman has hit a new stride (which seems to be the promise that streamers like “Life Itself” distributor Amazon Studios make to creators straying from traditional platforms). He is free from the tempered sweetness of “This Is Us,” for which he no longer serves as day-to-day showrunner, and the quality of the writing notches above that of his 2011 script “Crazy Stupid Love.”

Fogleman purists will not be disappointed. The last 20 minutes of the film are an absolute blood bath of sentimentality, with an uplifting and sticky message that we are who we come from. That we carry the spirits of our loved ones into the next chapter of their story by living our own lives.

But it is the darkness that makes this a movie grownups can enjoy, and will surely make it a valuable library title for Amazon — and a valuable next step for Fogelman as a creator.