Tuesday, July 01, 2014

“Life Itself”–Movie Review



In The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s New Releases Series, I saw the documentary, “Life Itself”, about the late film critic Roger Ebert.


When Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert is diagnosed with terminal cancer, how will he and his family deal with his final days?    


When Roger Ebert graduated from college, the last thing that entered his mind as a career objective was to be a movie critic.   In fact, he had higher goals in mind – to be a journalist.  Working for his school newspaper, he concentrated on serious stories and was careful to veer away from the trivial.  Growing up in the Chicago area, Ebert realized his dreams when he finally got a job writing for his hometown paper, The Chicago Sun-Times.  However, when the position of film critic became available, Ebert assumed the role; in writing movie reviews, he also rewrote the book on how the reviews themselves should be written.

Ebert, well-educated at the University of Illinois despite not making it to the Ivy League school that was his original choice, wrote articulate, thoughtful reviews that were clearly both intelligent and thoroughly researched.  Instead of flaunting his erudition, Ebert wrote for the average guy, almost as though he was addressing his family – his father was an electrician and his mother a housewife.  Over time, Ebert’s reputation grew and he eventually wound up doing various television stints before landing a local show with Gene Siskel, his crosstown rival from Chicago’s competing newspaper, The Chicago Tribune. 

Following Siskel’s death in 1999, Ebert continued with his television show; about seven years later, however, he was diagnosed with cancer and was not expected to survive.  As a result of the very surgery that was intended to save his life, Ebert wound up losing his ability to speak.  Although he continued to write – for his newspaper, blogs and the author of various books – Ebert’s television career had effectively come to an end.  When documentarian and fellow Chicagoan Steve James set out to film a documentary on Ebert’s life, plans changed shortly after shooting began when Ebert landed in the hospital; although he eventually went home, Ebert returned to the hospital shortly thereafter and died before the documentary could be finished as originally intended.     


A review of a documentary about a film critic is a hard one to write – especially when the critic in question is the late great Roger Ebert.  Giving the movie either a “Thumbs Up” or a “Thumbs Down” might in some odd way be a tribute to Ebert’s memory, but it would simultaneously be a facile response and inadequate to both the film and its subject’s life.  Sometimes with documentaries, the filmmaker accidentally finds him/herself stumbling upon their story; this was certainly the case with “Life Itself”.  Originally intended to be something of a follow-on to Ebert’s book of the same name, it wound up taking on a life of its own when Ebert suddenly entered the hospital and passed away during the shoot.

While the film is certainly a salute to Ebert’s life and to his loyal wife Chaz, it does fall short in some respects.  Namely, the time after former colleague Gene Siskel’s passing is given somewhat short shrift; specifically, there is no mention of Richard Roeper in Ebert’s post-Siskel period.  How this was possible is difficult to understand; Roeper is not only not mentioned in the documentary, he’s not even among those interviewed for the film.  Given the fact that he spent a number of years as Ebert’s partner after Siskel’s passing, this is something of a head-scratcher. 

According to director Steve James, this oversight was not accidental.  James said that when Ebert’s condition worsened, the contrast with Siskel’s situation weighed more heavily on shaping the story.  As a result, some things had to be cut out and Ebert’s collaboration with Roeper was one of them.  Supposedly, Roeper was notified by James that he would not be needed for the documentary and Roeper is said to have taken the news extremely well, albeit disappointed about the fact that he would not be able to make his own contribution to the movie about his friend and former colleague. 


Life Itself (2014) on IMDb


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