Life Itself

There is a great documentary to be made profiling the venerable Roger Ebert, who long held court as the most popular film critic in America and died at age 70 in the spring of 2013. Life Itself, a well-intentioned but enormously disappointing biodoc from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and producers Martin Scorsese and Steven Zaillian, is not that film....read more

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Reviewed by Nathan Southern
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There is a great documentary to be made profiling the venerable Roger Ebert, who long held court as the most popular film critic in America and died at age 70 in the spring of 2013. Life Itself, a well-intentioned but enormously disappointing biodoc from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and producers Martin Scorsese and Steven Zaillian, is not that film. Officially an adaptation of Ebertís best-selling memoir of the same title, the motion picture focuses on his last five months, as he battled cancer and faced a grim prognosis, and uses that period as a structural device. We get a series of flashbacks that take us through his colorful life and times, but keep periodically returning to his traumatic days in the hospital, to watch Roger wither away as his wife Chaz and others prepare themselves for their final goodbyes.

The film has many problems, but the two most pronounced are connected: a long running time and an excessive emphasis on Ebert's struggle with cancer. It was appropriate, of course, for James to depict Ebert's heartbreaking final days, but scenes of his hospitalization take up nearly a third of the picture; the disease and physical suffering get so much screen time that they threaten to offset the overview of his accomplishments. By default, we empathize with his plight and feel saddened by his sickness and passing, but this film begins to beg for sympathy, and that undermines the legitimate emotional pull that it would have otherwise earned. Ebert's legacy did not reside in his terminal illness; it resided in his work as a film critic and journalist, and his personal relationships with fellow critic Gene Siskel and wife Chaz Ebert -- those should have been the predominant emphases of the motion picture. The memoir's title is Life Itself and not Death Itself for a reason; accordingly, the documentary should be a celebration of Ebert's amazing life.

The movie also suffers from its hagiographic approach. Anyone who has observed and followed Ebert knows that, although he was enormously likeable and could be very charming on and off camera, he was far from a saint, and James is less than honest with his presentation (perhaps for fear of tainting his image). For instance: There is a famous outtake from Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, shot in 1987, where the two men playfully insult and curse at each other. Around the beginning of that clip, Ebert snidely looks over at a cameraman and patronizingly chides, "This is not the part that's supposed to match, slick. Give it a moment's thought and what are we doing now? The promos." James includes the outtakes for laughs, but cuts around Ebertís snarkiness. Why? Did he honestly believe that we would dislike Ebert for being a heel on occasion? The glimpses of Rogerís imperfections that we do get -- such as a brief but fascinating discussion of his alcoholism in the late í70s -- are what really make parts of this movie work. They bring Ebert down to earth, making him seem more complex, human, relatable.

There are also significant omissions here -- it may not be as obvious to someone who hasn't scrutinized Ebert's activity over the years, but if you go back and comb through what does exist online, it's curious what James chose to leave out. Consider, for example, two stunning interviews on Later With Bob Costas that Siskel and Ebert did in the early í90s, both of which are candid and revealing. Or Rogerís famous appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, in which he talks about his date with Oprah in the mid-í80s. Or most glaringly, Ebert's role as a trenchant and astute social critic on his blog in the last few years of his life. In the wake of the Aurora massacre, for instance, he wrote one of the most scathing and brilliant excoriations of the NRA and gun culture in the contemporary media. There is an image in the documentary that flashes on the screen, suggesting Ebert's pro-gun-control activism, but if you blink you'll miss it, and James skirts around any extended discussion of the matter.

The problem may lie in the directorís decision to make the documentary a loose adaptation of Ebert's memoir instead of simply doing an original biodoc on the man; perhaps he let himself be constrained by the content of the original work. The book was fresh, whimsical, and poignant, with short, piquant chapters about various episodes in Ebertís life. James takes that same approach, but for some reason, it feels too loose and scattershot onscreen. There are a few interviews with people like film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, Marlene Iglitzen-Siskel (Geneís widow), and Scorsese (who is so funny that he lifts the movie sky-high when he turns up), but there are also a fair number of individuals with ties to Ebert who are curiously absent, such as Winfrey, Richard Roeper, Hugh Hefner, Tom Shales, Rob Schneider, and Vincent Gallo -- the last two of whom famously ran into conflict with the esteemed critic.

To be certain, some of the footage interpolated here is entertaining, but this has to count as a missed opportunity.

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  • Released: 2014
  • Rating: R
  • Review: There is a great documentary to be made profiling the venerable Roger Ebert, who long held court as the most popular film critic in America and died at age 70 in the spring of 2013. Life Itself, a well-intentioned but enormously disappointing biodoc from d… (more)

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