Moving "Life Itself" Lovingly Memorializes Roger Ebert

The genius of Roger Ebert wasn’t in his accessible writing style, his immense personality, or even his adeptness for film criticism. He did, of course, possess all of those qualities, but his brilliance was far more expansive. In Steve James’ “Life Itself” – a documentary that dovetails Ebert’s colorful life with his final, labored months spent in and out of a Chicago hospital – it’s noted, by multiple interviewees, that Ebert was a populist. A man of the people – as evidenced by his humble beginnings and years of boozing and womanizing – and unabashedly for the people, doggedly breaking down the walls between film criticism and filmgoers. His brilliance was in his empowerment of audiences, making it known that a salary and a newsroom don’t make a critic – only thought and passion.

Ebert’s willingness to share that secret recipe often irked his peers, many of whom felt their assumed superiority over mainstream moviegoers threatened. But by unlocking the inner film critic in his readers – and “Siskel And Ebert” viewers – Ebert and his partner laudably stoked the flames of the communal nature of filmgoing, concurrently growing their audience and the industry itself. In that respect, “Life Itself” is the perfect tribute to its subject, expertly making the case that Roger Ebert almost singularly stole the medium back from the stuffy intellectualism that had begun to stifle it.

Yet, for its succinct and often hilarious retelling of a life well lived – director Martin Scorsese’s gets its biggest laughs – “Life Itself” is much more. Deep down, it’s a touching love story, one that rebuffs the kind of carefree onscreen romance that Hollywood churns out on the regular. There’s nothing wrong with a good Hollywood romance – as Roger himself often testified – but few are as stark or as genuine in their portrayal of actual love as “Life Itself.” That of Roger and Chaz Ebert was a hard fought one, rife with sorrow, and sacrifice, depicted here as anything but painless. When a cancer-ridden Ebert, unwavering wife by his side, has fluid suctioned from his neck, it’s impossible to reconcile the image with the film’s dueling narrative of a jolly, ceaselessly opinionated movie critic.

But in juxtaposing Ebert’s highs with his lows, James does something wonderful. Yes, there’s the intense pain of his subject’s latter days, but there’s also zero shame to be found in Ebert’s impending death. Surrounded by family and music and writing, Ebert finds great joy amidst the pain. In his happiness we see Chaz’s happiness, and in hers there’s solace. Just as soon as we see a quiet moment of suffering, Roger smiles and he’s immediately back. Back to the zenith of his profession, one that he miraculously sustained from the moment he went on air with Gene Siskel in 1975 to his final writings, made just days before his death in April 2013. He was open about his illness, but he never let it define him.

The passive visual style of “Life Itself” is its biggest weakness, never capturing the enormity of the life of its protagonist and the movies he loved so much. But the film ends on such a personal note that a broader approach might have overwhelmed its intimate bent. It’s certainly an unqualified love letter to Roger Ebert, occasionally venturing into sacrosanct territory. But we’re frequently reminded of his flaws and his lovingly combative relationship with Gene Siskel, and we remember why we loved him in the first place. He was one of us.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: July 4, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Director: Steve James
Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert
Genre: Documentary
MPAA Rating: R (for brief sexual images/nudity and language)