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Amazon's Latest Film 'Life Itself' Attempts To Attract Mass Theater Audiences

Life Itself
Amazon Studios
Olivia Cooke and Mandy Patinkin in "Life Itself."

The show "This is Us" has captured television audiences in vast numbers. Now in its third season, the show boosted producer Dan Fogelman to the big screen: Amazon Studios' film “Life Itself.”

Starring A-list actors (such as Antonio Banderas, Olivia Wilde and Annette Benning) the film follows a young couple’s journey and the twists of their life that impact generations and strangers from afar.

However, the film hasn’t generated the same kind of success as Fogelman’s TV work. It scored only an11 percent on the review site Rotten Tomatoes. And its opening weekend box office take was the worst opening of any widely released film this year – just $2.1 million.

It’s sobering news for a studio that wants to start generating more of its own content. Amazon Studios has created plenty of critical successes, but is “Life Itself” a bad indicator of the work that still needs to be done? Film contributor Dave Luhrssen says that while “Life Itself” does not live up to the high expectations, the scale of the critical negativity is puzzling.

"[It] won't be the greatest movie any of us will see this year, but it's far from the worst as it cleverly zig-zags through the stories we tell to and about ourselves — and it has an A-list cast that rises to their roles," says Luhrssen. "I came in with a negative impression based upon glancing at some of the stuff that's out there before the release of the movie. And maybe that low expectation helped me, but I found myself enjoying the movie for the most part."

"Life Itself" repeats its main theme of "the unreliable narrator" throughout its four-character chapters, giving audiences one tragedy after the next that are all interconnected — to a fault according to most critics. However, Luhrssen believes the choice was made deliberately in order to have a greater impact on the audience. "Maybe the bludgeoning aspect is a symptom of Fogelman's background in TV where you maybe can't count on a network TV audience getting sophisticated references," he explains.

Veering between horror and humor, the film gets darker than "This Is Us" would ever be allowed to go on network television, says Luhrssen. But "Life Itself" reflects our need to comprehend our darkest times. "We are a narrative-creating species because it helps us navigate through a reality that's incomprehensible at times."

Although the box office numbers don't reflect a promising outlook for Amazon Studios, the reality is that audiences should expect many more of its self-distributed films in future. What started as a company buying art-house films at Sundance for distribution (such as the Oscar-winning "Manchester by the Sea" and "The Big Sick"), Amazon Studios intends to shift its focus to more commercial projects that will reach a wider audience.

"Amazon has become this gigantic entity, its tentacles wrapped around the globe ever more tightly, and why should we be surprised that they'd be interested in filmmaking?" — Dave Luhrssen

While "Life Itself" isn't Amazon's first film to appear in theaters, it can be considered the company's first large-scale attempt to bring in mass audiences that follow shows like "This Is Us" into the movie theaters. Starting with Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" in 2015, Amazon has released Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel,” Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here,” and Gus Van Sant's "Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot" in theaters.

Luhrssen says this cross-marketing experience isn't new to the film industry, though it may seem like there is a rise in streaming content across multiple platforms like Netflix and Hulu.

"I think Amazon, maybe because of what they are, they are uniquely situated to take advantage of all of this," he says. "It's not unprecedented, because as far back as the 1970s, the old Hollywood studios were mostly purchased by transnational corporations that had nothing to do with the entertainment business."  

"The idea of film as an art form was there from very early on, but also the idea of film as show business was there right from the get-go," Luhrssen adds.

As distributing platforms fight between the balance of quality and quantity, "[Amazon] certainly does want to make a good impression by hiring the best," with the goal to extend its reach far beyond those cardboard boxes at your doorstep, says Luhrssen.

"Amazon has become this gigantic entity, its tentacles wrapped around the globe ever more tightly, and why should we be surprised that they'd be interested in filmmaking?" says Luhrssen.

Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
David Luhrssen is arts and entertainment editor of the Shepherd Express, co-founder of the Milwaukee International Film Festival and co-author of A Time of Paradox: America Since 1890. He is the winner of the Pace Setter Award for contributions to Milwaukee's film community from the Milwaukee Independent Film Society. David Luhrssen has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and Milwaukee Area Technical College.