If you use reviews to decide on a film to watch and you come across some for Life Itself – you wouldn’t know what to think! A Sky Original movie in the UK and produced under the Amazon Studios label, something about this film has split people down the middle. It’s created some very mixed feelings.
Reviews from critics and the internet’s finest describe the film as a well-meaning but cheesy, multi-stranded mess. This has given it a pretty lousy 12% on Rotten Tomatoes. But plenty of reviews on IMDB give the film nine or ten stars, exclaiming that the critics are wrong and that it’s the best movie ever.
Remember when I talked about subjectivity in my Mary Poppins post? I know, right?
And without wanting to sound like I’m sat on the fence, I can see, understand and appreciate all of the points that everyone makes. I wouldn’t necessarily claim it’s the best movie ever but how could I all the time Cool Runnings exists? But I did enjoy this film for what it is. Though I would likely concede that what it is probably is a cheesy, multi-stranded mess.
Life Itself is written, directed and produced by Dan Fogelman. You might know Fogelman from his incredibly widespread writing credits on Crazy, Stupid, Love, Tangled, Cars and Cars 2 and that film where Morgan Freeman and Michael Douglas go on holiday to Vegas. Quite the varied CV.
But mostly, you’ll likely know him as the brains and writer of the smash-hit US family drama This is Us. But more of that later on.
The film follows the stories of several multi-generational characters whose lives are intertwined in someway or another. Set between New York and Spain, the characters are generally struggling with the one thing no-one has control over – life itself. Get it…? Like the title of the film.
Stick Samuel L. Jackson in a film and you’ve got my curiosity. But put him alongside fellow Star Wars alum Oscar Issac, my favourite of House M.D’s interns Olivia Wilde, all-around legend Annette Bening, effortlessly-lovable Mandy Patinkin and Antonio Banderas, and you’ve really got my attention.
The characters’ stories in Life Itself are all told in chapters with touch points throughout that show exactly how they’re linked. The emotional aspects of it were heavy fisted to say the least but that somehow didn’t take away from it. There were points where we smiled and where we laughed. There were also points at which I had to put my arm around Mrs Izzard because some water fell out her eyes and even some when she had to do the same for me.
But it’s a strange film because all of that happened yet I wouldn’t say I came away thinking that the film really affected me. Because of all of that, I felt as though I should have continued feeling something about this film minutes, or even hours after watching it. But as soon as we turned off Now TV, we didn’t feel compelled to have a deep conversation about what we just witnessed. Instead we jumped in the car and went to Sainsburys. And it wasn’t even a bits shop – it was a big one.
What was interesting about the film is its marketing. We watched it the day it came onto Now TV not because I was eagerly awaiting its release, but because as soon as I saw it, I remembered something specific about the trailers.
Because when I talk about Life Itself, we need to talk about how trailers are marketed.
When I say that, I mean the little tagline you see on a trailer or a poster, when it says ‘from the makers of so and so.’ In the case of Life Itself, this was ‘from the creator of This Is Us’. This was what Amazon wanted us to remember after we watched the trailer. And it worked. I immediately talked to everyone about how ‘the guy that did This Is Us is doing a film and it looks just like This Is Us’.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I suggest you put down whatever device you’re looking at this one on, go away, binge all of This Is Us and then come back. I’ll still be here, don’t worry about it.
For those who don’t have a couple of thousand minutes of spare time, I’ll get you up to speed. Now on its third series, This Is Us is a hugely popular TV show. This drama follows a Pittsburgh family and tells their story in a non-traditional, non-linear fashion (much like Life Itself).
But much more than that, the show’s signature is crying. Whether it’s tears of joy, that holding-back kind of crying, the one that takes you by surprise or just good old fashioned sobbing, This Is Us breaks your heart just as frequently as it warms it.
Such a success it is, that the marketing for Life Itself did much more than just lean onto the fact that it was ‘from the creator of This is Us.’ The trailer for the film was edited in a similar way to an episode, it featured music that could easily have been taken from the show and even the colour-grade made it look like as though the movie had the same ethereal look to it that This Is Us has.
I recently had a conversation with someone whose job title is head of insights for a movie marketing agency. We spoke about how film studios change the focus between a first and a second trailer of a movie depending on what gets a positive reaction on social media. And that also goes for box office takings.
You could see this in action in the marketing for Avengers: Infinity War. The time between the first and second trailer saw Black Panther come out and smash the box office. So popular was the film that come the second trailer for Infinity War, we saw lots more shots of the Black Panther and plenty more that were quite clearly in Wakanda (the hero’s home-field).
Film studios’ or distributors’ key goal is to make people see a movie whether it’s in the cinema or at home. So trailers will always appeal to whatever’s popular or recognisable. Initially, I was annoyed that a trailer promised me a two-hour episode of This Is Us with a cast that includes Jules Winnfield and Zoro, but instead delivered something far less accomplished and a fair bit messier.
But then I realised this marketing plot isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If I watched Life Itself expecting sword fights and explosions because that was what’s in the trailer, this would be a very different blog post. But using something recognisable in a film’s marketing lets us know what we’re getting ourselves in for.
In the case of Life Itself, there were a lot of the Dan Fogelman-esque things that people love about This Is Us in the movie. It’s not like Amazon did a bait-and-switch on fans of the TV show, they just knew how they should promote the film to people that are going to call it the best movie ever on IMDB. Amazon was right to latch on to the most recent and certainly most popular thing that Fogelman’s done and use it as a lever. That way, when it does come available on Now TV, we’ll remember that this is the one from the ‘creator of that thing we love.’
And hey, it worked because we watched it. And cried. And then we cried a bit more.