Roger Ebert, one of the finest film critics ever published, was also a great guy! However, Iím pleased that Life Itself, a documentary directed by Steve James, tells the story of Ebertís entertaining and inspiring life without glossing over his flaws -- which seem to make him even more endearing. This outstanding film reveals a man of great talent and courage who used his love of movies and way with words to become one of the nationís -- and maybe the worldís -- most influential film critics.
Iíve always loved to read Ebertís movie reviews. They never seemed formulaic, and he put so much of himself into everything he wrote. In fact, Ebert and his accessible critiques helped motivate me (like lots of other movie buffs) to become a film critic. Life Itself, based on Ebertís best-selling memoir, showcases his early interest in writing, his assignment as a reporter and critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, his sometimes contentious partnership with Gene Siskel, his marriage (at 50 years of age), and his battle with cancer.
Fascinating interviews with Ebertís family, friends, filmmakers, and other movie critics help make Life Itself such an engaging documentary. I especially enjoyed Martin Scorseseís reactions when Ebert and Siskel surprisingly panned one of his films. Amusing clips from the Siskel and Ebert TV shows also add to the documentaryís appeal. About those flaws, Ebert sometimes used his Pulitzer Prize as a sort of weapon with Siskel. ďThey were like little boys fighting it out on the playground,Ē according to one interviewee. However, these two passionate critics did grow to respect each other. Ebert also spent many years as a practicing alcoholic. Thankfully, after he finally quit drinking, he had a long history of sobriety.
In the beginning was the word. Lucky for us, Ebertís parents definitely encouraged his interest in writing as a youngster. They even applauded whenever he used a new word! ďI can write. I always could,Ē Ebert admits. Itís clear this talent helped him during his various rehab stints. When he lost the ability to speak, he created a popular Blog and communicated with his many fans through the internet. It surprised me to find out that Ebert could write a movie review in just 30 minutes. (Iíve spent three times that amount of time on this review.) ďFacileĒ is the word one of Ebertís friends uses to describe his exceptional writing skill.
The most painful part of this extraordinary documentary involves Ebertís physical disability as he struggles with cancer. His brave wife Chaz plays a key role here. She helps her husband keep writing and working with Steve James on the movie project by typing out ďone interview answer at a timeĒ on his computer. During this stage and with his sense of humor still intact, Ebert goes through a frightening medical procedure, and we canít help empathizing with him, which seems entirely appropriate -- for he once told us, ďMovies are a machine that helps people empathize with others.Ē
My only disappointment with Life Itself is a selfish one. I wish the documentary had included a scene or two from the Telluride Film Festivals. Ebert hardly missed a one, and thatís where my husband and I were fortunate to meet him.
Itís both a joyful and a painful experience to watch this touching cinematic tribute to Roger Ebert. Itís also a must-see for movie fans and critics alike.
(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated ďRĒ for brief sexual images/nudity and language.)
For more information about Life Itself, please go to the Internet Movie Data Base or Rotten Tomatoes website.