Life Itself is a documentary chronicling the life and times of famed film critic Roger Ebert.
There’s no way I wasn’t going to love a documentary about arguably the most famous and influential film critic of all time, Roger Ebert. To this day, I still watch old reviews of him and Gene Siskel. Even though I probably agreed with Siskel more, there were plenty of times where I found myself more infatuated with Ebert. For someone who’s passion for film knows no bounds, I identified with Ebert greatly. There is no denying that man’s love for film. The way Ebert would shift in his seat ever so slightly whenever he felt passionate one way or the other shows he wasn’t doing this for a paycheck, or to sound like an overly smart snarky pompous jackass like so many other critics out there. The man simply loved movies, and this documentary was a perfect and powerful insight into his life.
The film spends a great deal of time in the later stages of Ebert’s life when his ability to speak was gone, as he battled thyroid cancer for years. While certainly hard to watch him in a hospital setting, I found his zest for life still genuine. Certainly the relationship with his wife, Chaz, was a huge part of that, but I also believe it’s because Ebert was still working as a film critic. You can take his voice, but you can’t take his brilliant insight. The man reviewed movies right up until his death. One of the most impactful moments in the film for me was how difficult it was for him to actually go to a movie theater. For me personally, I cannot even fathom this as I practically live at movie theaters. While the documentary intercuts between his present life at the time, and his own history, the film spends a lot of time on his younger years.
I wasn’t aware of Ebert’s alcoholism, and in watching the film, you learn he gets pretty down at one point. This segment on his earlier life was interesting, such as his first A.A. meeting, and his foray into screenwriting with director Russ Meyer, but I wasn’t totally engaged like I was in the second half. Throughout the film, they scatter in written excerpts from some of his reviews, which was awesome, including one of his very first films, Bonnie and Clyde. The focus on his professional career was certainly the highlight for me, but some of the famous relationships he had were also fascinating.
Ebert had a very close friendship with director Martin Scorsese. If you’re a film fan, you’ll find all this stuff captivating. There’s a point where Scorsese talks about how he was a bit down in his life, then Siskel and Ebert gave him a tribute, which upped his spirits. The following sequence though is both critics ripping apart The Color of Money. I don’t want to spoil it, but Scorsese’s response to this criticism truly warms your heart, and shows why Scorsese has been consistently great for nearly five decades, whereas so many other filmmakers fade away, or become hit or miss.
You also forget how big of celebrities Siskel and Ebert were. I had no idea they were on The Tonight Show as many times as the film mentions. Not only that, but you can tell that filmmakers and actors had great respect for them, even when they criticize their movies. There’s a classic bit with Ebert and Chevy Chase on The Tonight Show that sums this up perfectly. People also forget just how influential the “Two Thumbs Up!” slogan was. Especially in the nineties, this was the ultimate seal of approval that was blown up all over the movie poster.
There’s a lot to love about this film, but there’s no question the focus on Siskel and Ebert themselves was the highpoint. I was absolutely enthralled with everything having to do with their relationship, because you get the impression these guys truly detested each other, but what you don’t realize is that it was more like a sports rivalry, ala a Larry Bird/Magic Johnson, or Tom Brady/Peyton Manning – pure magic. They constantly wanted to one up each other, even to the point of pranks on an airplane. These guys got heated over a Benji film. Benji! That’s why At the Movies worked so well. Siskel and Ebert acted on emotion and heart, not some scholarly pretentious diatribe. There’s one segment in particular where the movie touches on Siskel’s death, and the effect it had on Ebert. I almost welled up. This was extremely sad, but also very powerful. The movie is worth seeing for the Siskel and Ebert dynamic alone.
While the film drags a bit, especially on Ebert’s earlier years, and his time at the Cannes Film Festival, director Steve James did a hell of a job. The last leg of the film is pretty hard to take, especially with some of Ebert’s e-mail responses to James. Ebert’s wife Chaz was elegant in every scene she was in, but especially her last. The final voice-over and lasting image of the film are extremely powerful. If you’re a film fan, I highly recommend this, but if you’re interested in film criticism, you must watch this. With the way film criticism has been going the last few years, we’ll never get another Siskel and Ebert, but I can only hope that up in heaven, Siskel and Ebert are on top of a cloud arguing about 22 Jump Street and Maleficent.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (Really Great)