|Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in LIFE ITSELF, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Kevin Horan|
2014, 118 minutes
Rated R for brief sexual images/nudity and language
Review by Joshua Handler
Steve James’ documentaries stand out for their heart. I haven’t seen Hoop Dreams, the film that put James on the map, but I’ve heard it’s one of the finest documentaries ever made. I have, however, seen Life Itself and James’ previous film, The Interrupters. These movies tell stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The Interrupters told the story of a group of people in Chicago who walk into the middle of potentially violent conflicts and try to resolve them peacefully. Life Itself tells the story of Roger Ebert, a man who became the most famous and influential film critic of all time.
Life Itself is named after Ebert’s autobiography and is a comprehensive, detailed celebration of his life. It is also an intimate tale of a dying man’s final months. Roger and his wife, Chaz, were extremely open to sharing Roger’s story, warts and all. While much of Life Itself is funny and entertaining, it is also humane and raw. During the last few months of Roger’s life, he was in and out of the hospital, struggling with cancer and the Eberts allowed James to document it all.
James’ documentaries, moving as they may be, aren’t sentimental and present full portraits of the people they portray. Though James and Ebert were friends (Ebert was one of the first to champion Hoop Dreams and named it the best film of the 1990s) and Life Itself is overall a very loving film about Ebert, it isn’t without its criticisms of Ebert.
Roger was always open about his struggle with alcoholism, and his tempestuous relationship with Gene Siskel was something that affected both greatly. The two men were TV giants and best friends, yet because they were so fundamentally different, they didn’t always get along.
Ebert was always a fundamentally good person, though, as many point out in the film, he had a huge ego when on TV which would lead to arguments between him and Siskel (who also had an ego). While James certainly does give a fair amount of screen time to Roger’s misgivings, this film is a celebration of a life well-lived, not a critical assessment of this life.
Many may wonder why a film critic should bother reviewing a film about a film critic. It’s no secret that the Academy and film critics love movies about movies. Aren’t we predisposed to love Life Itself then? The short answer is no. Creating a film about one of the giants of the industry is an extremely tricky task, as Life Itself could’ve easily been a mushy tribute to Roger Ebert. It isn’t, though. A filmmaker has to walk a delicate line creating a movie like this and it easily could’ve gone wrong. However, because James is such a skilled documentarian, he pulls it off marvelously.
Many documentaries’ impact is blunted by their running time. Frequently docs can’t sustain an 80-minute running time, but James manages to make Life Itself run for two hours without missing a beat. From the minute Life Itself starts until the minute it ends, it is engrossing. Ebert’s life was so colorful that James could’ve easily filled four hours with stories and information about him.
Overall, Life Itself is a moving tribute from a great filmmaker to his friend, a film critic. Friends are great because they’re your biggest supporters while also unafraid to kindly criticize you. This is why James and Ebert are the perfect director-subject match and why Life Itself is as heartwrenching, kind, and prickly as it is. Life Itself is a movie for Ebert fans and non-fans because it is, above all, a remarkable piece of documentary filmmaking.
A note: parents should disregard the MPAA’s atrocious R rating for this film. If your kid is old enough to be an Ebert reader, then they are old enough to see Life Itself. This is yet another example of the MPAA keeping people from seeing a good, educational, life-affirming movie.