I have been cracking my knuckles and staring blankly at my computer screen for a good half an hour now, trying hard to think up of a way to spin this review. How does one begin to jot down his opinion of a documentary that holds so much warmth about a man who held so much warmth for the very craft I hereby exercise? To list details of Life Itself, and to expand on why such details make it an engrossing documentary, would be to do the film a disservice. Neither should I talk about Roger Ebert as if I knew him personally. I can, and should, only tell you if Life Itself is worth your time and money. And my dear readers, I say it is.
It follows the routine structure of most biographical documentaries, but because it contains a character larger than, well, life itself, it expands to accommodate his ego. And then it also expands to accommodate the ego of Gene Siskel, who, as the movie suggests, shared a volatile but healthy relationship with Mr Ebert. Some great moments between the two are captured here on film. There are a number of outtakes from At The Movies that demonstrate their fierce rivalry but that also divulge their underlying compassion. When Siskel was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1998 and failed to inform Ebert about it, you can empathise with Ebert’s distress.
Ebert, as much of the world knows, succumbed to his own travails last year. By december 2012 he had lost his bottom jaw completely to cancer, was in and out of hospital, and was suffering from a multitude of other ordeals. He fractured his hip, which confined him to the claustrophobia of a wheelchair for a good length of time. And then he was down with a bout of pneumonia, which triggered the beginning of his end. And then the camera of Life Itself takes us into the very sanctum of Ebert’s final months. His wife Chaz remained by his side till the end, sometimes frustrated by his stubbornness, always loyal. His grandchildren visited him in the hospital and cried when they reminisced about their granddaddy’s passionate lectures on film. The camera follows Ebert back to his home, which is spacious and chic and stacked with all sorts of books. It’s no surprise that one of his favourite places to go was the second-hand bookstore. Nothing could make him leave, he said.
We see and know all this because Ebert wanted us to. Steve James, the director of Life Itself, corresponded with Ebert during his final months and tried his hardest to extract information from a mind that was too sharp for the fragile shell of its decrepit body. It is a gutsy inspiration that for approximately six years, Ebert continued to publish reviews and attend conferences, despite having to speak with the help of a computer. He even showed up at a TED Talks seminar.
Life Itself is elegantly graceful. It is conventional and safe, but it is also wickedly beautiful and stubborn, like Ebert was. It is his belated eulogy made public. For me, this holds a lot of meaning; I have been writing movie reviews for over 2 years now. My website has over 300 titles. In those 2 years I have read Ebert’s reviews and taken inspiration from his wit, intelligence and piercing insight. His reviews are not boring recounts of events, nor are they dot-point lists of why he liked this and hated that. With every review I learn something about him; I discover his secrets.
His impact on me cannot be quantified.
And now I realise I’ve been describing details about his life through the movie, something I said I wouldn’t do. So let’s backtrack and arrive at the point of this review: Do I recommend Life Itself? Yes, for two reasons. 1) If you know Roger Ebert, are a fan of his, or are also into writing movie reviews (or any reviews for that matter), you will take away something inspiring. 2) If you do not know anything about Ebert the man, Ebert the critic, or Ebert the smug star, you will after seeing this film. Why should I see a film about a man I have no interest in? Because he was nevertheless a man. He led a life of incredible stories. And stories, as you well know, are the foundation of the films that both you and I watch. So you see, we are all connected. This means you should see this film.
Best Moment | Enjoying Siskel and Ebert bicker on camera like a couple of toddlers fighting over the last ice-cream cone.
Worst Moment | Nope.