Thumbs Up: Life Itself 

Life Itself
Directed by Steve James

Reading Roger Ebert’s film reviews over a long period (most of a lifetime, say), you caught glimpses of the man behind the critic—fitting, given Ebert’s fondness for the Robert Warshow quote, “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” There were asides about his upbringing, anecdotes about his friend McHugh (a name so perfect I long assumed it was fabricated), even hints of his past alcoholism. When cancer and its treatment silenced his speaking voice and he turned to a blog which later turned into his memoir Life Itself, the “flood of memories,” as he called it, filled in the gaps, like comic book backstory long implied but never spoken.

Now, a year or so after his death, Life Itself has a companion documentary of the same name by Steve James, whoseHoop Dreams Ebert so admired. James spent time with Ebert during his last months, and this footage feels startlingly exposed. His drooping chin, when raised by his facial muscles, forms his mouth into a triangle that looks like a perpetually engaged, delighted smile—or maybe that was just his nature. Ebert had revealed his new appearance, sans much of his bottom jaw, long before his death, but just as his book filled in the blanks of his personal life, the film (half adaptation, half continuation) fills in the blanks about his daily physical struggles—and his spirit.

Ebert’s jolly past selves appear too: in photographs, narration from the book (read by someone during a surprisingly decent approximation of his Midwest intonation), and vintage Siskel & Ebert footage, both clips and outtakes, that dot the movie’s history of that program and made me yearn for more. Life Itself touches on a lot—Ebert’s personal relationships with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Ramin Bahrani; the argument over whether Siskel, Ebert, and their “thumbs” devalued film criticism or made it accessible—and sometimes, in doing so, hews unnecessarily close to his book. Passages about Ebert’s ritualized travel to the Conference on World Affairs and the Cannes Film Festival, for example, were fine on the page but not necessary to reproduce from a third-person POV.

More valuable are the perspectives left out of the memoir: ruminations from friends (one marvels, as I did in turn, about his thirty-minute review turnaround time; another notes that a youngish Ebert had the “worst taste in women of any man I’d ever known”), colleagues, and his widow Chaz. The sheer volume and variety of testimonials, glowing and less so, turns Life Itself from an affectionate tribute to a great writer to a rumination on the concept of a well-lived life. Some of it may be film-critic catnip, but as a critic, I must admit to being that teared-up man: I have no problem copping to the irresistibility of a smart movie about one of my heroes.

Opens July 4


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