Roger Ebert (1942-2013) exemplified the best traits of a film critic, a populist communicator unafraid to introduce his audience to adventurous material. How I would’ve loved to sit in on one of his 5 hour frame-by-frame analyses of such classics as The Third Man. As a freethinker I find much to admire in his meditations upon religious belief and the afterlife, and I wholeheartedly agree with his position that movies at their finest are “empathy-generating machines.”
So, why am I so lukewarm about Life Itself, the documentary by Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) on Ebert’s life? I guess it’s largely because Life plays it safe: we see the photos of Roger as a boy, the video of Roger’s memorial service, the standard shots of Chicago, and yes, a look at Ebert’s star on the Walk of Fame. For anyone who has read Ebert’s autobiography (I highly recommend the personably-narrated audio version), practically the only new material here is the documentation of Ebert’s final months, during which Roger and his wonderful wife Chaz allowed James considerable access to their lives.
If you’d rather not read or listen to Ebert’s autobiography, then I do recommend this film to you. James hits all the high points: Ebert’s childhood journalistic efforts, his promotion to film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, his struggles with alcoholism, the Siskel and Ebert television programs, his luck at finding abiding love late in life, and his cancer diagnosis and bravery in allowing Esquire magazine to print the memorable photo of his cancer-altered visage.
Please don’t get me wrong, there is much to enjoy in James’ film. The morphing of his relationship with Gene Siskel, from indifference to childish sniping to friendship, is covered touchingly and effectively by a series of hilarious television outtakes. Affecting, too, are the tributes by the likes of Errol Morris and Martin Scorsese, recounting Ebert’s championing of their once-obscure work and his encouragement at moments of deep personal crisis. Again, I only wish that James depicted a life so effervescent with the creative verve it deserves.
(Life Itself is rated R for its language and brief nudity, thus laughably lumping it with the masterworks Porky’s and American Pie. I would be comfortable letting any teen interested in film criticism watch this film.)
3 out of 5 stars