Review: ‘Life Itself’ does right by Roger Ebert’s life and legacy

When people want to minimize this thing I do for a living, they like to quote Jean Sibelius, “Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic.”
It's a bit of a lie, but that hasn't stopped social observers as keen as Chad Ochocinco from making the cliched declaration.
While it may not be cast in bronze or carved from marble, Steve James' “Life Itself” stands as a cinematic monument to its subject, a much more fitting celebration of Roger Ebert than anything that might have been produced by Rodin or Brancusi.
One could hardly find a more amenable audience for “Life Itself” than a Press & Industry Screening at the Sundance Film Festival, but I think this is a documentary that will play beyond rooms of ink-stained wretches. “Life Itself” is a moving tribute to one exceptional critic and, by extension, his profession, but it's also a celebration of celebrating movies and, at its heart, a salute to any life lived fully.
More on “Life Itself” after the break…
Initially, I had worries about “Life Itself.”
Steve James is a great filmmaker — “Hoop Dreams” is as good as it gets, while “Stevie,” “The Interrupters” and “Head Games” all have ample merits — but “Life Itself” was a strange project even before it changed gears. An adaptation-of-sorts of Ebert's autobiography, it took a different turn when  Ebert died last year, fairly early into production. 
In his passing, Ebert was amply and glowingly eulogized, not only for his proficiency as a writer, but also for the indomitable spirit that kept him in the public eye after his cancer diagnosis and as he declined physically, but never mentally.
Chris Jones' Esquire profile of Ebert was pretty darned near definitive, one of the great pieces of mainstream magazine writing of the past decade, and whatever terrain Jones' somehow missed, others mined, including Ebert's wife Chaz.
I had fears that “Life Itself” would be James' two-hour payback for Ebert's “Hoop Dreams” review, a four-star celebration in which he called the doc, “It is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime.” It might not have been unearned, but two hours of Saint Roger and Saint Chaz might have been a bit much.
In “Life Itself” there are early indications that things might go in that direction. This cinematic tribute literally begins at a staged tribute to Ebert, before flashing back to December 2012 when an ailing-yet-optimistic Ebert found himself in the hospital again, facing a fifth or sixth stint of  physical rehabilitation. From there, James goes into an early biographical sketch which verges on parody. In the first 15 minutes, we're hearing how Roger Ebert was the greatest college newspaper editor in history, with classmates celebrating his pluck and his integrity and I began to slide deep into my seat.
Fortunately, “Life Itself” doesn't just slide into easy hagiography, especially since in erasing Ebert's sins, one might largely erase Ebert. Ebert's gifts as a raconteur and boozy barfly are celebrated, as is the commitment to sobriety that he kept for the last 30+ years of his life. Ebert's love of large-breasted women led to his collaboration with Russ Meyer and to the tremendous “Life Itself” moment in which Martin Scorsese offers his critique of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”
No, “Life Itself” gives measured and pragmatic reflection to many of the things that are most interesting about Ebert's personal and professional life.
Even with neither Siskel nor Ebert alive to give direct testimony, the look at the bickering partners-in-thumb-raising is nothing short of wonderful. Clips highlight some of the finest bickering moments in their shared history — “Scarface,” “Benji the Hunted” and “”Apocalypse Now” are among several featured — and I could watch hours of passive aggressive “Siskel & Ebert” outtakes. With at least three of their long-time producers, plus Chaz and Siskel's widow Marlene, offering insights, you get probably the best look ever into the relationship that probably defined the past few decades of film criticism. [Richard Roeper is 100 percent absent from the documentary. He and Ebert worked together at the Sun-Times and shared the “At the Movies” balcony for eight years. It's really hard not to read things into his absence.] 
Don't think “Life Itself” is content to canonize Ebert for codifying film reviewing into a job that some people can be done using only raised or lowered digits. While some of Ebert's colleagues, including A.O. Scott, speak only in glowing terms, Richard Corliss isn't afraid to temper his admiration by acknowledging the frustration he lobbed at Ebert in Film Comment back in the day. Ebert's Chicago peer Jonathan Rosenbaum also has respect, but doesn't shy from plainly saying, “”Consumer advice is not the same thing as criticism.”
In the same vein, Ebert's friendships with filmmakers are used as the cause behind suggestions that he may have become less harsh and negative as he aged and became more established. But mostly, those friendships yield expressions of love from filmmaking names both big and small. Scorsese has some of the documentary's funniest and most emotional moments, which is to be expected. Less expected are the relationships with “Man Push Cart” helmer Ramin Bahrani and “Middle of Nowhere” director Ava DuVernay, two of many small filmmakers Ebert championed. [Ebert's fights with less successful directors didn't make the cut, so don't expect and discussion of Vincent Gallo.]
Even the best relationship in Ebert's life isn't viewed through some gauzy filter. Chaz Ebert, often depicted as an eternally patient angel, gets to be tough and feisty here, standing up to her husband and fighting for him. It's not an idealized relationship, even if there's something swoon-worthy about two people who found soulmates a little bit later in life. 
The last act of Ebert's life takes up a lot of screentime in “Life Itself.” That's in part because that's when James and his camera came to the party. The director turns the camera on himself in one moment and is very much a character or active narrative presence in the 2012-2013 part of the documentary. His email questions to Ebert also produce answers that are very amusing, very introspective and, later, both telling and sad. 
But Ebert never shied from confronting people with his changing health. He didn't want to shock or disgust people, or even to force unease or discomfort. Instead, he was more interested in showing his unaffected mind and a smile that never went away, no matter how many surgeries and infections seemed to jeopardize it. Roger Ebert spent seven or eight years dying before our eyes, but what he wanted us to see was that he was still living. “Life Itself” takes us right up to those last days, but it's never depressing for a second.
No critic is going to be able to sit at their computers to write about “Life Itself” without some measure of personal investment. Roger Ebert didn't make me want to become a critic. That was all on Pauline Kael. But Ebert was a regular part of my critical consumption and showed me the many ways and places a critic could express himself. 
It's nice seeing an inspirational figure honored, but I think it's even nicer to see an inspirational figure properly honored. Surely critics would be the first to lob insults at a Roger Ebert film that fell short. “Life Itself” does right by Ebert, it does right by people who love movies.
Now if only James could trim a couple minutes from the student newspaper segment!
Other Sundance reviews:
“Web Junkie”