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Documentary Review: ‘Life Itself’

July 4, 2014
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Ebert would have loved this: It does not gloss over major events that tarnish his star – his alcoholism, his pettiness, even his face. This is not simply a chronicle of the critic’s final few months, rather it’s an overview of his life, aptly so, I suppose, as it’s adapted, in part, from Ebert’s memoir Life Itself.

Ebert was born in Urbana, Illinois, about an hour and a half south of Chicago, and grew up early on recognizing that he had a considerable talent for writing. In his mid-twenties, he began writing movie reviews for The Chicago Sun-Times, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1975. Around that time, too, he teamed up with Gene Siskel, forming something of the U.S.’s popular critical consensus for nearly 25 years. Most of those beats you probably know, and director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) does an excellent job filling them in, yes, with interviews from those who knew Roger best during those times, and passages from the book, but even more so with a deft pace aided by short interspersions of Roger today, or at least Roger in 2012. These diversions are, thankfully, less a study in courage than a testament to stubbornness, wit, or another key personality trait that maintained while the body faded away.

What is there really to say? The mood in Chicago’s Lake Street screening room shifted from somber to cheerfully reminiscent, as these were his peers, and no doubt many of them, when an outtake of Roger cursing out Gene was played, were reliving and laughing at their own memories of not the one but the both. The bulk of the film, which runs a good two hours, seems devoted to their relationship, and it was surprising to me, someone who never knew Gene (and didn’t really know Roger that well) how contentious it could be. Roger was jealous of Gene’s semi-playboy lifestyle and tendency to be controlling, while Gene would get fed up with Roger’s playground temperament. There are times where I feel like the film slightly holds back, but not here, if anything, I feel like the tension may have been overstated. Nevertheless, I wasn’t there so I really don’t know, but it’s among the best and most interesting aspects of the film – after all, isn’t it the reason we tuned in to watch them?

The rest is enlightening at least, addressing other critics’ claims that what Siskel & Ebert were selling was not true film criticism or that their program even set the art of film criticism back; recalling tales from Roger’s bar-hopping years; his romance with Chaz, his wife, and their kids. James manages to avoid making this a home movie and instead provides a well-rounded portrait. Whether it’s inspirational or not I think is beside the point – those who seek inspiration well, perhaps, find it, but I think the purpose to explore an interesting man and several of the key characteristics that made him interesting, a subtler but more rewarding goal.

Since it’s a documentary and not likely to enjoy a massive release, I think those who see it will come in with a good deal of the backstory. Again, I think this should answer any questions they may have. Those who may catch it later on Netflix or some other outlet will not be confused. For my part, I think it goes on a bit too long, but it does make me wish Roger Ebert were still around a little more; I wish I could have talked movies and books and politics and whatever else with him more, knowing full well that we’d probably disagree on everything; I wish I could have had a drink with him back when he still drank; at least with this film I feel like I knew him a little better.

Rating: 4.5/5

Life Itself is rated R. Directed by Steve James. Starring Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Steve James, Martin Scorsese, and Russ Meyer.

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