Life Itself Review
Before we get into this review, let’s get something out of the way first. “Life Itself” is a profile of Roger Ebert. Roger Ebert was somebody I followed religiously all my life, I watched his show growing up, I have several of his books, I read nearly every, single review he ever wrote. His death last year prompted me to writing about movies on my blog. If that makes you think that this review of his documentary will be entirely bias, then you probably shouldn't read it. Just because a movie is about something that interests me, doesn't mean I would not treat the film like every other film I see. There are genres I love more than others, there are directors I love more than others, as well as actors and writers, but I take everything they do film by film. Roger Ebert maybe one of my heroes, and movies may be one of the things that define my life, but that doesn't mean the movie got a free pass. I really hope you all understand that every review I write comes from a very sincere, very passionate corner of my heart, and I don’t do anything on this blog by half-measures.
If you think that just because this documentary was made by Steve James, who directed the great “Hoop Dreams” (a documentary Ebert loved) and the film was an idea by Ebert’s wife, don’t think that this is just two hours of people kissing Roger Ebert’s ass. One of the best qualities of this movie is how it shows Ebert at his most vulnerable. I learned about Ebert’s terrible drinking problem, which forced him to attend AA meetings. We learn that because Ebert was an only child, that he was self-obsessed, self-absorbed, and wanted everything done his way. We learn that his big personality made him butt heads with many people in his life, including Gene Siskel, his partner on the television show “Siskel and Ebert and the Movies.” So Roger Ebert was far from a perfect man, big deal. If learning this about Ebert did anything for me, it made me respect the man more. Everybody has demons that they wrestle with everyday, everybody has pieces of their lives that they are not happy about. Even though I have a family that loves me, a girlfriend who adores me, friends I can count on and I have had my fair share of successes, that doesn't mean my life is rainbows and butterflies. My life has been far from that. I have also had my fair share of failures, and I have made decisions in my life that ordained me to burn bridges in my life. I am not proud of it, but it made me who I am today. If “Life Itself” teaches us anything, it’s that life is still good, even when it throws you an unexpected curve-ball and I highly appreciated how the film showed a vulnerable Ebert.
“Life Itself” is also immensely nostalgic. There were moments where we see “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies,” both in front and behind the camera. I couldn't help but laugh and smile while I re-watched Siskel and Ebert go back and forth about the merits of a particular movie. I loved meeting the people in Ebert’s life that made his life special, and listening to them talk about him was something I found deeply enthralling. I also was impressed by how the film highlighted Ebert’s unique writing style. There was a time where film criticism was almost frowned upon by the world of journalism, and many people didn't think it would ever evolve. Ebert was determined to make sure film criticism evolve and he made it matter. Ebert did not just write movies for monetary profit, he celebrated the entire medium, both the good and the bad. That is reflected in his writing and we really learn how Ebert was instrumental in making film criticism matter.
The only thing that kind of bugged me about the movie was how it switches between Ebert’s life and his life leading up to his death. There is rich energy to how the film tells the story of Ebert’s life, and then it seems to slow down when we see him at the hospital, taking his time with his surgeries, rehab for walking and the like. I kind of wish that the film focused more on his life, or maybe that the current stuff was handled better. It isn't something that derailed the movie and I like that we see just how strong an individual Ebert really was, but I wish that it was handled with more care than it was.
But overall I think this is a great insight into an American icon. It is a biography come to life, and it is symphony of people and memories. It is a movie that recharged my appreciation of film, my love of film, my addiction to film. It also reminds me of the people that made loving movies criticism matter. Now, more than ever before, I will see you at the movies.
FINAL GRADE: A-