“Life Itself,” fairly or not, is going to be known as the big-screen cousin of the hit TV show “This Is Us,” which, since my only TV viewing these days consists of “Game of Thrones” repeats, Rachel Maddow, and “WWE Raw,” I’ve never seen. But I’ve been told that it can be very funny, very sad, and very unpredictable. So it’s no surprise that “Life Itself,” written and directed by Dan Fogelman, who created and has written numerous episodes of “This Is Us,” is funny, sad, and unpredictable.

Make that extremely unpredictable, and not just story-wise, though the story, or collection of related stories, does take some catch-you-off-guard turns. Even the structure of the film is refreshingly different from most dramatic fare out there. Starting out with the familiar format of chapters — there are four spread over two hours — senses of time and place are played with almost immediately, and as later chapters are presented, with different sets of characters, associations with earlier events and people begin.

It’s not easy to latch onto the rhythm of this thing. But knowing that before getting caught up in it, and possibly becoming confused because of its complexity, and knowing that it all eventually comes together into one interconnected story, should be reassuring.

The dizzying Chapter One has angry, frustrated Will (Oscar Isaac) trying to set his life straight with a psychiatrist (Annette Benning) after his wife Abby (Olivia Wilde) left him. At least he says she left him, but there seems to be something else going on here. The explanation gets rather muddled when Samuel L. Jackson starts narrating, then shows up onscreen, playing himself as the narrator. Reality and fantasy begin crisscrossing, and viewers aren’t going to be sure who to trust, till it’s time for them to know.

The film is already hilarious and emotional wrenching even before Chapter Two, about 8-year-old Dylan (Kya Kruse), sets out on a twisty-turny road that looks at the close relationship between her and her loving grandfather Irwin (Mandy Patinkin). The young girl’s first name figures prominently in the story as does the music of late-’90s Bob Dylan. And aspects of Chapter Two have direct correlations to Chapter One.

But before they can sink in, Chapter Three comes along, switching location from America to Spain, and language from English to subtitled Spanish. It’s the initially heartwarming boy-meets-girl story of the Gonzalez family, of Javier Gonzalez (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a foreman on the ranch of wealthy Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas), and of the beautiful young waitress Isabel (Laia Costa), who falls as hard for Javier as he does for her. Until, as will happen, love starts to take on a life of its own. But there’s also a child, little Rigo (Adrian Marerro), and there are events that — you guessed it — are tied to other events that viewers have seen, but that haven’t happened yet in the proper timeline of the story.

In the latter parts of the film there is less humor and an endless supply of drama. And there’s Chapter Four, with the dialogue shifting back to English, in which Rigo (now played by Alex Monner) has grown up to college age and moved to America, where circumstances lead to him meeting up with Dylan (also grown up and now played by Olivia Cooke).

It’s around this point that explanations come out regarding how earlier and later events are joined at the hip, and how the back stories of certain characters have led to them becoming these now clearly defined people.

Fogelman’s ideas may start out fluttering around in different directions, but when they eventually merge into a focused picture, and are acted out by this inspired ensemble cast, the result is one of the best dramatic-comedic films of the year.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Life Itself”

Written and directed by Dan Fogelman

With Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa

Rated R