Mark Reviews Movies

Life Itself


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Steve James

MPAA Rating: R (for brief sexual images/nudity and language)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 7/4/14 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 3, 2014

Roger Ebert was a teacher in whose classroom I never physically sat, a mentor who never directly gave me advice, and a friend who never crossed the threshold of any place I lived but was still a regular visitor in the living room of my childhood home almost every Saturday evening. He was, for several years, a colleague by trade, location, and membership in a professional association of film critics.

I sat with him in the same movie theaters—the small screening room and various multiplexes throughout the great city of Chicago—but never introduced myself to him or thanked him (To be perfectly honest, that is one of the biggest regrets of my life thus far; we always think we have more time). When I returned to Chicago after college and started this strange but wonderful journey of writing about film in earnest, Ebert had lost his ability to speak after cancer took most of his jaw. He did give me a thumbs-up when I unintentionally sat in the seat in front of the one that was—and, it should be noted, remains—traditionally his. I feared I was blocking his view, but no, he pantomimed, I was just fine where I was.

Shortly before he died in 2013, I was there when Ebert, after a lengthy hospital stay, briefly returned to watching movies in public. In a spontaneous display of admiration, a collection of people in the audience for an advanced screening of some movie stood and applauded Ebert as he slowly, carefully, and, in retrospect, painfully made his way to a seat.

The man was and—thanks to that grammatical rule of using the present tense when discussing written works—still is a great critic. They weren't applauding him for that. They were clapping because Ebert was never shy about sharing the struggles of living with illness. They knew how much it took for him to get to that theater, walk to his seat, and go on doing what he loved to do. He was an inspiration—a public reflection of the strength of those who privately fight disease and of how we hope we will respond when that terrible biological inevitability strikes. Now we have a biographical documentary about the man's life, death, and influence, and like its subject, Life Itself is also an inspiration.

The film was not intended to be an obituary or eulogy, but as one, it is as honestly kind and kindly honest a tribute as anyone could hope to receive. Director Steve James, whose work Ebert championed early in the documentarian's career, began filming while the critic was alive. The prognosis for his disease was still—to best degree such things can be—hopeful.

The film, under James' thorough and unceasingly compassionate guidance, accomplishes much. Based on Ebert's memoir of the same title, it covers the length of a life. We can imagine that almost every chapter here could warrant its own movie.

We see a documentary about the professional rivalry and growing friendship between Ebert and his late sparring partner Gene Siskel, whose nationally syndicated television show brought film criticism into many homes and inspired a few generations of film lovers—myself included—to watch movies with a critical but appreciating eye. We envision an account of Ebert's adventures in Hollywood writing Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. We picture a tender, real-life love story of a recovering alcoholic who feared he would be alone for the rest of his life and meeting a strong, lovely woman named Chaz, who turns his whole world upside-down. James even shows us how one could make a movie of a critic's written work.

All of this is here. It is related through the words of family and friends, who are frank about but amused by his flaws. It is told by critics (including A.O. Scott, who tries to diplomatically say that part of the appeal of movies to Ebert was beautiful and buxom women, and Richard Corliss, who finds himself nearly speechless when asked to comment on a decades-old criticism of Ebert and Siskel's work on television) and filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese, who tells a beautiful story of how Ebert and Siskel helped bring him back from the brink of contemplating suicide during a difficult time in his life, and Ramin Bahrani, who visits Ebert in the hospital and whose spot-on impression of Werner Herzog transitions to an interview with Herzog himself). It also comes through archival photos and videos—his on-camera fights with Siskel and home movies of family vacations.

There are items missing, too. The film only hints at Ebert's online journal—which covered such topics as politics, philosophy, religion, and science—and his revival of a movie-review show on public television in 2011. After Siskel's death, the film never again mentions the show they made famous as Ebert continued with Richard Roeper. Such, though, is the fullness of a life truly lived. How many of us live to such an extent that a movie about our life would need to leave some of the important bits out of the final cut?

Of all the film achieves, its most extraordinary accomplishment is how bravely it depicts the ravages of illness. James is in the hospital on good days and bad ones. At his subject's insistence, he keeps the camera running as a nurse suctions Ebert's esophagus, and Ebert, who never hid the effects of his illness, emails the director, proudly declaring that it will likely be the first time such a procedure has ever been shown in a movie. It stays on a heartbreaking scene in which an irritated Ebert tries to communicate how he needs help getting up the stairs to his home, as Chaz becomes frustrated in urging him to do it on his own—doing what any loving spouse and supporting caregiver would do, really. Anyone who has cared for a sick loved one will recognize the emotional toll in this scene.

Life Itself is an empathetic, affectionate, and, at times, shattering film that honors its subject through its candor. Ebert concluded his final online journal entry with what now turned out to be a prophetic statement: "I'll see you at the movies." Many of us are still saving you a seat, Roger.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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