Life Itself (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Roger Ebert means a lot to me. Though I have never met the man, nor will I get a chance to do so, when I heard about his inevitable passing, I was devastated. A cold grip contracted in my stomach which ascended up my throat: Gone is the person who inspired me to take a look closer at the movies and to write about what I think about them divorced from what anybody else thinks. That inspiration is one of the great gifts I still cherish today and will continue to do so until I am able and willing.
After watching Ebert’s biographical documentary “Life Itself,” directed by Steve James, I questioned if it would be appropriate for me to write a review whose film is based on a person I regarded very highly. Then it occurred to me: I could either remain silent or I could honor him by writing exactly what I think. Needless to say, I chose the latter. And here is what I think: I was not impressed with the film.
The documentary is cursory—an inappropriate pace and tone for the picture. Because its intention is to cover Ebert’s background as a child; his accomplishments as a young writer a reporter, a movie critic, a husband, a father, and a towering figure in the history of film criticism; and how he has dealt with his ailing health, the film does not leave much room for us to breathe.
The target audiences are people who came to admire or respect the man. Most of us know the facts. So would it not have been more appropriate to still present the facts but spend more time putting a magnifying glass over the connective tissues—from the emotional to the psychological—that make up the subject? This is why segments that directly tackle Ebert’s adversities, such as alcoholism, stand out.
Equally important are interviews with people whose lives changed for the better because of Ebert. We get to hear from filmmakers like Ramin Bahrani, Ava DuVernay, and even Martin Scorsese. There is not enough of this. Instead, we get to hear from other professional critics who make very little contribution in putting the subject’s influence into perspective.
And then it goes on to present Ebert’s fiery relationship with the late Gene Siskel. While entertaining and it brings joy in my heart every time I see a clip of them duking it out, the director seems unable to move on from the partnership. It brings up another topic but then reverts to mentioning Siskel again. It gives the impression that the film is disorganized.
It saddens me that “Life Itself” is not the definitive documentary about the former most influential movie critic in the country. When the most interesting thing on screen at times is passages of its subject’s writing, then it is likely that the director is not doing his job well. For instance, where is the conversation that asks why Ebert became the definitive mainstream film critic? It makes this claim but it does not bother to say or at least contemplate possibilities as to why he reached such a status.
Thus, I will cite reasons why Roger Ebert became my definitive movie critic. He is not cynical. Even when he has seen a formula picture, he tends to acknowledge in his reviews why it might have some value. When he thinks that a film is deplorable and should not exist, he is not afraid to explain why it has offended him greatly. When he looks at characters—especially if they are odd, afflicted, or treated as pariahs—he attempts to sympathize with them and offers us an alternative way to appreciate people who we may not want to acknowledge, look at for a period of time, or understand.
The soul of “Life Itself” is hidden underneath the facts. When its core does move to the foreground, it likens that of a whale: coming up only for a minutes to get some air and then it is hidden again. It should not have been this way.