Director: Steve James,
Watched on: DVD,
The late film critic Roger Ebert would have appreciated seeing the movie made from his memoir, Life Itself, available on both theater screens and television at the same time. He was enthusiastically democratic about movies. He loved exposing everybody to all kinds of films–the silly and the sublime, the blockbusters and the indies–and his enduring legacy was his ability to talk and write intelligently about movies without coming off as pompously intellectual. The popular movie review program he hosted with Gene Siskel, At The Movies, may have dumbed down the critical process for art house snobs, but it showed that smart talk about motion pictures could be exciting, funny, and even enlightening to the great unwashed masses. He helped make it okay to have an opinion about a picture.
Life Itself is directed by Steve James, a fellow Chicagoan ever grateful to Ebert for championing his legendary documentary, Hoop Dreams. There is an endearing personal quality to the film that is hard to be churlish about, but the movie is a raging hagiography, with way too much detail about Ebert’s life outside the movies, and way too little of the stuff most people want to see. Excerpts from At the Movies (and its preceding incarnation, Sneak Previews) are so few you wonder if the movie’s producers had trouble getting usage rights. The same is true of actual film clips, which would seem to be the most alluring reason for watching a documentary about a famous movie critic. Instead we see the fruits of James’ unique access to his subject, which, frankly, are quite difficult to watch.
James films Ebert in the final months of his life, most of which is spent at a hospital battling complications from the thyroid cancer that ravaged his face, leaving his jaw a dangling gap of flesh through which you can see a bandage around his neck. Ebert demanded that James tell the whole truth in his documentary or he wouldn’t participate, but these hospital scenes seem excessively gruesome and woefully unimaginative. Why did a film about one of the great lovers of movies have to be so…well, non-cinematic? Life Itself is as old-fashioned as they come, chocked full of interviews, photos and news clippings, which seem to satisfy the filmmaker’s desire to leave no unnecessary detail out. And it features an actor’s voice simulating Ebert reading from his memoir, a phony device that stops the movie cold.
Life Itself gets to the heart of Ebert’s story when including interviews with Martin Scorsese, whose first film Who’s That Knocking on My Door?, was an early favorite; and in the outtakes of Ebert and Siskel trading nasty sarcasms on the set of their TV show; and surprisingly, when Ebert returns home from the hospital long enough to discuss (via a computer-aided voice) his vast new website, a repository for all of his reviews, which will make critics green with envy and cinephiles rejoice. These are the moments when Life Itself transcends the dutiful telling of a story of a fairly ordinary, unremarkable person–like so many of us in this world–who accomplished something extraordinary and remarkable. He helped us learn to love the movies.