After watching “Life Itself” I can’t help but wonder what Roger Ebert would say about the film that focused on his life and career? How, after years of tearing down or praising the work of filmmakers, would he feel his own story holds up on the big screen? Instead, it is up to the scores of people who have been inspired by his work to write out their opinion on Steve James’ film on the legendary film critic. So, here it goes.
“Life Itself” is a loving display of the man, not the critic, and the passion that drove him all of his life until his final months. As a fan of film, it is hard not to look at the film with rose-tinted glasses as someone so influential to the craft is being honored, but there is much to admire beyond the cinema and Steve James portrays it, if not as mesmerizing as in some of his past work, in a pleasing way.
Like any good documentary, in one-way or another, the film is a learning experience. For many, Roger Ebert was a man who gave a film either a thumbs up or a thumbs down – but the film dives into his personal history and that is where some of the best stuff lies. His work as the Editor-and-Chief of the University of Illinois newspaper, his battle with alcoholism in the early parts of his life, and the struggles with the illness that would claim his life, were all areas that brought greater depth, and appreciation to an already revered figure.
However, it is in Ebert’s two most important relationships that the film truly finds its heart – those he had with Gene Siskel and his wife Chaz Ebert. Like the coin that Ebert and Siskel apparently used to solve many of their disputes, these relationships were complete opposites. That’s the beauty of it though, the ying and the yang of Ebert’s life. The film brilliantly counter balances the growth and effect of these relationships alongside each other. One may have caused stress and anger and the other joy and relief, but each would serve their purpose and be just as vital to the man Ebert was.
“Life Itself” is a well-made film with an interesting subject matter, and it does have more to say than just to chronicle the subject’s life. I mentioned in the beginning how I wondered what Ebert would say about this film, and that is because I can’t help but find weaknesses are present.
The film is by the books. It hits all the requirements of a documentary but doesn’t do too much more with a majority of them. The story is told too much by one on one interviews, which are the hallmark of most documentaries, but as such has become tired. For a movie about a man who changed the landscape of film criticism and from a filmmaker who has done revolutionary work in the past, the majority of the film feels quite tame.
There are exceptions, of course, but once again we go back to Ebert’s relationship with Siskel and Chaz. The promo bloopers or clips from the show when they really got at each other’s throat were strong. There was also a particular moment when Roger and Chaz had a slight argument after his return from the hospital. Chaz’s tearful retelling of Roger’s final moments also soared above the rest of the film, which unfortunately lacked the same kind emotional charge.
At the end of the day, the faults are there but they can’t deter “Life Itself” from being essential viewing for any film fan out there. Roger Ebert’s fingerprints cover the last fifty years of film, and now his spirit has been forever immortalized on the big screen.