Life Itself (United States, 2014)

July 02, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Life Itself Poster

"There are no guarantees. But there is also nothing to fear. We come from oblivion when we are born. We return to oblivion when we die. The astonishing thing is this period of in-between." -- Roger Ebert

When Steve James, the acclaimed director of Hoop Dreams, agreed to make a documentary based on Roger Ebert's memoir, Life Itself, he never imagined what the finished product would become. Nor, for that matter, did Ebert or his family. The basic narrative pathway remains evident: through the use of text, images, and talking head interviews, Life Itself was to meander through the chronology of Ebert's existence from his days working at The Daily Illini to the present. What wasn't anticipated, however, was that the film would also become a record of Ebert's final months. When Life Itself went into production, Ebert believed himself to be cancer-free with no reason to suspect that his time on this planet might be drawing to a close. He received the death sentence midway through filming but, instead of shying away from the camera, he beckoned it closer, determined that the truth of his circumstances, difficult as they may have been at times, be committed to film. The candor of many of James' shots, some of which are uncomfortable to watch, is a testimony to the sincerity of Ebert's determination to show "truth." This is a uniquely powerful motion picture, the kind of open and honest portrayal I can't ever recall having seen about a celebrity. Life Itself stands not only as a moving piece of documentary cinema but an epitaph.

Life Itself combines footage captured during Ebert's final months with archived material from the entirety of his career. Friends, family members, and notable personages (like director Martin Scorsese) contribute anecdotes and remembrances. A large number of still photographs are used to provide images for those parts of Ebert's life for which no moving pictures are available (such as his time at The Daily Illini and his early days at The Chicago Sun-Times. As one might expect, there are numerous excerpts from Siskel & Ebert (in its various incarnations), including some hilarious outtakes in which one can sense that the infamous love/hate relationship between the men was at times strained.

Life Itself is only loosely based on Ebert's memoir of the same name. The book, a collection of memories and edited version of entries that originally appeared on Ebert's blog, is less a conventional autobiography than it is a stream-of-consciousness ramble through the experiences of a larger-than-life figure. The structure, as well as a few of the reminiscences, have been retained for the movie but by establishing the "present" to be Ebert's last days, there is a deeper and more serious undercurrent to be navigated.

Life Itself is both a celebration of a man's life and a pull-no-punches chronicle of his decline. Although there are no images taken during the final six weeks of Ebert's life (the rehab facility in which he was housed didn't allow photography), James provides us with the texts of various e-mails that show Ebert had made peace with the inevitable. Prior to that, we are shown clips of a nurse suctioning Ebert's throat (a regular procedure he underwent). We are provided with access to Roger and his wife Chaz's reaction shortly after they learn of the cancer's return (the initial prognosis was that Ebert had 6-16 months to live; he lasted less than three months after the diagnosis). There are times when the documentary provides viewers with a fly-on-the-wall perspective. At times, such as when Ebert tries to express his thoughts concerning navigating a flight of stairs, the sense of voyeurism is uncomfortable. But this is what Roger wanted: an unvarnished depiction of his struggles. In fact, he indicated that he wouldn't want to be associated with anything less open and honest. (And he had no illusions about the future: he remarks that by the time the movie is released, he likely won't be around to see it.)

The movie is a remarkable essay. It touches on aspects of Roger's life, some openly public and some deeply personal. Excerpts from the book are read by a voice actor doing a credible impersonation. James strikes the right tone throughout. There are times when the film is light and funny, instances when it is nostalgic, and occasions when it's almost too painful to watch. The portrait it presents is vivid.

Even for someone like me, who knew Roger, the movie is a revelation. I don't think anyone outside his immediate inner circle recognized how deeply he suffered during those final months and years. The reason is simple: his voice, as expressed through his reviews and columns, rang out as clear as ever. His words throbbed with passion and life. When reading his last blogs, the image I always carried of Roger was of the man I walked alongside on the streets of Philadelphia in 1998 or whom I sat next to in theaters in Toronto, Park City, and Champaign-Urbana. If Life Itself has taught me nothing else, it's this: I have always known Roger Ebert to be a better critic than I am; I now know he was a better man than I could ever hope to be.

Life Itself (United States, 2014)

Director: Steve James
Cast: Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel
Screenplay: Steve James based on the memoir by Roger Ebert
Cinematography: Dana Kupper
Music: Joshua Abrams
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Ranked #3 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2014
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2014-07-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Brief Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1