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Review: Life Itself (2014)

Life Itself (2014)

Directed by: Steve James

Premise: A documentary about the life and work of film critic and blogger Roger Ebert.

What Works: Some motion pictures start out with big ambitions and are predicated on self-importance. Movies like this address matters that are, or are assumed to be, very significant and the filmmakers set out to answer life’s big questions. With a few exceptions, these kinds of films frequently fall short. Life Itself does not proclaim to be a movie about grand issues. It’s a documentary about a film critic, recounting his career and his struggle to function and stay alive amid very difficult circumstances. And yet, this portrayal of Roger Ebert’s life manages to get at something very essential about life. The movie opens with archival footage of Ebert lecturing about movies and why he thought they are important; Ebert claimed that movies offer a chance for empathy with other people and provide opportunities to see the world from a new vantage point. That is exactly what Life Itself accomplishes. The first portion of the movie details Ebert’s education and apprenticeship as a writer and a journalist. This part of the film is pretty standard biographical filmmaking although the recollections and insights provided by the commentators are amusing and colorful. The tone of this portion of the movie is generally reverential towards Ebert but the filmmakers include some unflattering details among the tributes, such as Ebert’s womanizing and alcoholism. The second portion of Life Itself focuses on Ebert’s rise to become the world’s most recognizable film critic and one of its most popular personalities, which he did through the televised film review program he co-hosted with Gene Siskel. The story of Ebert and Siskel’s competitive relationship has a terrific arc to it as these two men, who at times did not seem to like one another very much, found vitality in their struggle with each other. The final portion of Life Itself focuses on Roger Ebert’s declining health and his relationship with his wife Chaz. Interestingly, the film includes testimony from filmmaker Werner Herzog, which is fitting because the final portion of Life Itself shares the unsentimental view of life characteristic of Herzog’s work. The movie captures the last movement of Ebert’s life in a way that is sometimes difficult to watch but the honesty with which it is presented is staggering and at times emotionally wrenching.

What Doesn’t: As with most biographical films, there are some notable gaps in Life Itself. For instance, the documentary says little about the television show after the death of Gene Siskel. Critic Richard Roeper picked up co-hosting duties with Ebert from 2000 to 2008 but this is not addressed and Roeper’s absence from the cast of commentators is strange. After Roeper and Ebert left the show, At the Movies was revamped as tame, publicist-friendly infotainment that was journalistically questionable. This also goes unaddressed and it reveals a broader subject that is generally untouched in the documentary. Despite the fact that Life Itself is about the career of one of the great film critics in the history of cinema, the movie does not reveal much about the craft and technique of film criticism or of Ebert’s approach to it. The movie is also haunted by a question of credibility. Life Itself was directed by Steve James, the filmmaker of the documentary Hoop Dreams, which Ebert had championed in 1994. Some of the other filmmakers who appear as commentators include Errol Morris, Ava DuVernay, and Martin Scorsese, whose work Ebert had generally liked. It’s a wonder what this documentary might have been if it included actors and filmmakers whose work Ebert despised like Meir Zarchi or Adam Sandler. Life Itself was made with Ebert’s cooperation, which complicates the distance between the filmmakers and their subject, although everyone involved seems to have preserved the integrity of the picture.

Bottom Line: Life Itself is a fitting tribute to one of the great champions of movie criticism but the filmmakers craftily sneak up on the audience and give us much more than that. This movie offers a portrait of a man and of the process of dying with an unvarnished honesty that is rare in contemporary movies.

Episode: #509 (September 21, 2014)