Our Sundance Film Festival coverage continues with Michael Cusumano on "Life Itself".
Is there any point in pretending I can be impartial in reviewing Steven James’ documentary adaptation of Roger Ebert’s autobiography Life Itself? I, like no doubt a lot of critics, feel Ebert is in no small way responsible for the fact that I write about film. I purchased a copy of his Movie Home Companion around age 13 that I read and reread until it literally fell apart at the seams. In college I wrote him with a question about Memento and he mentioned me at the start of his review (no fooling), which remains one of the cooler things to ever happen to me. At a time when I was badly in need of encouragement he posted a link to my blog on his Facebook page and sent a Biblical torrent of traffic my way.
So yeah, it would be a challenge not to pass this movie with flying colors simply because I miss the guy dearly and am happy to spend two hours in his company. Luckily Steve James has made a documentary that I can safely say I would recommend regardless of the subject, although for hardcore fans the abundance of new interviews and previously unseen archive material makes the film a must-see. Life Itself is straightforward, funny, well paced and surprisingly moving.
For long stretches the doc most resembles the final scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life with the movie inviting us to ponder what the film landscape would look like without Ebert's (and Siskel’s) influence. Filmmakers from Errol Morris to Ramin Bahrani to Werner Herzog testify how they would likely not have careers had Ebert not used his considerable influence to help them break through. In the film’s most memorable scene Martin Scorsese recounts how a career tribute from Roger and Gene helped pull him back from the brink of depression so bad he wanted to give up on films. Even the film itself is a gesture of gratitude since the director owes much of his success to the relentless championing Siskel and Ebert gave Hoop Dreams in 1994.
Not that the film is a glowing hagiography of the man. Some of its most entertaining stretches delve into Ebert’s flaws: his massive ego, his alcoholism, his petulance when he couldn’t get his way with Siskel. Time is given over to those who feel that 'Siskel and Ebert' cheapened film criticism. Then there is the section recounting the bizarre circumstances that somehow led to Roger writing the Russ Meyer camp classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. A.O. Scott's attempt at finding a delicate way to describe the appeal Roger saw in Russ Meyer’s oeuvre brought the house down at my screening.
James was filming right up until the end, and there is footage of Roger in early 2013 right after tumors were found along his spine and doctors gave him months to live. Like all great biopics Life Itself manages to be about something more than the simple recounting of events. It’s about living a life full enough that when the end comes you can face it with some semblance of the dignity and clarity Roger Ebert demonstrates here.
Grade: Probably an objective B/B+, but I can only review it from my own perspective and I had an A- experience.