Chuck Koplinski: 'Life Itself' unique and moving
There's an obvious symmetry at play with Steve James' "Life Itself," the revealing and surprising documentary about film critic Roger Ebert. After thousands of recommendations, imploring movie lovers to go to the movies, in a sense he's doing the same thing after his death. Though Ebert was not the director of the movie, in giving James access to film him as he struggled with the many health issues that plagued him later in life, he paved the way for something unique and moving to be made.
"Life Itself" covers the significant moments in Ebert's life we've all become familiar with — his childhood in Urbana, making his mark as a fiery editor with a conscience during his tenure as editor of the Daily Illini while a student at the University of Illinois, his rise to prominence as film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times and his ensuing celebrity when the movie review show he did with fellow critic Gene Siskel became a national sensation. However, James is able to bring different shadings to this material with interviews of many of Ebert's colleagues who provide a more personal view of the man.
The film covers this material at a brisk pace — cutting back and forth between it and scenes of the critic struggling with physical rehab and trying to find a sense of normality — showing the critic at his best and his worst. While his partnership with Siskel brought him fame and fortune, the love/hate relationship between them tended to bring out the worst in Ebert, though his partner's widow Marlene Iglitz provides a point of view of their friendship that's revealing. That Ebert had the self-awareness to begin and continue attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings is an example of not only his humility but his fortitude as well.
However, the film is at its most revealing when we see him tolerate the obviously painful medical procedures he chose to endure. Having his throat suctioned, forced to walk with a frail hip, frustrated when communication becomes difficult, we see a man who refuses to let the monumental difficulties thrown in his way stop him. Ebert wrote more furiously than he ever had before in the final months of his life and this gave him purpose and kept him going, as did the love and devotion of his wife Chaz, a woman seen here with untold reserves of strength.
James makes sure to include testaments relating to Ebert's impact on the world of film, including anecdotes from directors Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris who all cite him as one of the few critics whose opinions they valued and who kept them honest in their work. Fellow critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss are on hand as well to weigh in on his impact — for better or worse — on the world of film criticism. All of these accounts prove engaging and informative, as each witness is obviously passionate about Ebert and his impact.
However, in the end, the fact that Ebert became an internationally known film critic proves to be the movie's MacGuffin. What he did for a living fades to the background as examples of how he lived his life — as a friend, as a husband, as a human being looking death in the face — show us the true measure of the man. There's a sense here that in some ways Ebert was never more alive than when he knew the end was imminent and seeing him here, refusing to back down from the inevitable, he provides us with a courageous example of not only how to live life but rage against its end as well.
Note: Koplinski gives "Life Itself" 31/2 stars.
Movie critics also are giving 'Life Itself' two thumbs up:
Ty Burr, Boston Globe
"As Ebert himself would appreciate, this is simply a great story — a cantankerous young newspaperman who became a passionate and tireless cheerleader for an art form, a lonely soul transformed by love late in life, a cancer victim whose sufferings seemed only to purify him."
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
"Because of Ebert's remarkable ability to connect with individuals and enlarge their lives with his passion for film, it wasn't just a few people who knew him that well. It was everyone."
Bruce Ingram, Chicago Sun-Times
"Far more than just a tribute to the career of the world's most famous and influential film critic, the often revelatory 'Life Itself' is also a remarkably intimate portrait of a life well lived — right up to the very last moment."