Review: Life Itself
A larger-than-life figure is given an honest and bittersweet requiem in Life Itself, as the life and death of Roger Ebert is examined and celebrated.
The paragon of film criticism, a man complex, ever-changing, and flawed, Ebert agreed to a documentary about his life following the success of his memoirs of the same name. Documentarian Steve James, who credits his early rise and success in his career to the support of Ebert as well as colleague Gene Siskel, was tasked with examining the fascinating professional and personal life of a popular yet maybe not particularly well known man.
Ebert drank a lot, he ate a lot, he maybe didn’t have the best taste in woman (and maybe paid for one or two), and he wrote incredible prose that captured the attention of many. It’s a revealing documentary in many ways, using the present to leap into the past and mark Ebert’s early days and steady climb through The Chicago Sun Times.
The present though, is most tragic. James explains in the opening that just as they were set to start filming, Ebert fell and broke his pelvis. The trip to the hospital was thought to be short, but it wasn’t at all, with only one brief exit before a return and his eventual death.
The melancholy sweeps through the film, even as hilarious anecdotes and remarkable stories about recounted by friends and coworkers. Comprehensive in scope and earnest in tone, Life Itself captures the final months of Ebert while remembering the years of his remarkable past, including his partnership with Russ Meyer in creating Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as well as his days with Gene Siskel, of which there was quite a bit of animosity.
It is by no means a film that only casts the famous writer in a great light; instead it’s a beautifully made portrait that becomes simply incredibly sad as time passes. Ebert is still smiling in his hospital bed, and James doesn’t shy away from returning to this painful present. When Ebert gets a pipe inserted down his throat, it’s uncomfortable to watch him in his discomfort.
At the same time, while using his voice synthesizer, Ebert is still cracking jokes.
Such is Life Itself: comic and tragic, beautiful and sad, complex and simple. It’s a fitting portrait and rightly reverent piece of deft filmmaking that does its part to reflect on a man, a writer, and an unforgettable influence in the film world.