[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Life Itself opens in limited release today.]
Roger Ebert was quite possibly the most revered film critic in history, and it’s not likely he’ll be eclipsed anytime soon. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer had a knack for penning his thoughts on a film in a way that was both illuminating and accessible, and his life had a massive impact on the world of film criticism as a whole. Ebert championed many filmmakers throughout his career, including Hoop Dreams director Steve James, and Ebert is the focus of James’ latest documentary, Life Itself. The film acts as a fascinating, loving, and ultimately heartbreaking tribute to the life and legacy of Roger Ebert. Read my full review after the jump.
Adapted from Ebert’s autobiography of the same name, Life Itself is framed by video interviews conducted with Ebert during the final years of his life. James was granted access to Ebert as the film critic was hospitalized for long durations due to his deteriorating health. Ebert is in good spirits during most of his screentime, communicating using the automated voice on his computer. His wife Chaz Ebert is almost always by his side, and she provides the emotional backbone to the picture.
The film chronicles a bit of Ebert’s childhood and college years, but the bulk of Life Itself focuses on Ebert’s career as a film critic. James interviews numerous friends, acquaintances, filmmakers, and fellow critics for the documentary, and they all provide insightful thoughts about Ebert and his work. James has no qualms with painting an unflinching portrait of Ebert the man, and that means delving into the critic’s early troubles with alcohol and his reputation for being a bit of a ladies’ man.
In exploring Ebert’s impact on the world of film criticism, James spends quite a bit of time on Siskel & Ebert and the relationship between Ebert and fellow film critic Gene Siskel. The television show brought criticism to the masses in a unique way, and both of its hosts became household names. It’s no secret that Siskel and Ebert butted heads quite often, and again James doesn’t cut corners when it comes to some of Ebert’s less flattering tendencies; one of Ebert’s longtime friends aptly proclaims, “He’s nice, but he’s not that nice.” Siskel and Ebert worked for dueling publications and both had strong egos, which often led to heated disagreements. In fact, one of the producers of Siskel & Ebert said almost every decision right down to the lunch order had to be decided by a coin toss because neither one was willing to relent his position.
Ebert’s reviews didn’t only affect the general public, though, as many filmmakers took notice as well. Ebert was one of the first film critics to positively review Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and the two subsequently struck up a rapport. Scorsese appears in Life Itself to reflect on his friendship with Ebert, noting that Ebert gave him a negative review for The Color of Money that chastised the filmmaker for not challenging himself while never getting nasty; it was more of a “you can do better” tone, and Scorsese admitted that it was ultimately beneficial to him. The filmmaker also gets tearful when reminiscing about a very low point in his life that was literally saved when Ebert and Siskel invited him to accept an award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The most emotional points in Life Itself, though, come from the footage that James shot quite recently. We’re given an intimate glimpse into the last few months of Ebert’s life, and what’s so absolutely striking about these scenes is Ebert’s overall demeanor. Even after undergoing an incredibly painful suction procedure while in the hospital, he cracks a joke, and he remains in relatively good spirits after his doctors have told him he only has a short time left to live. Remarking on the situation, Ebert says, “This is the third act, and it is an experience.”
Roger Ebert lived his life to its fullest, and the impact of his writing had immense implications not just for individual readers or filmmakers, but also for film criticism as a whole. The world is a better place for having had Roger Ebert in it, and Life Itself is an excellent reminder of why.