Life Itself Review

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The 70-year life of legendary film critic Roger Ebert, charted and celebrated. With contributions from his friends, family, peers and those he reviewed, plus previously unseen footage from both his prime years and final days.


Roger Ebert, debatably the most famous film critic the world has ever seen, had a life as dramatic as many of the movies at which he wielded his thumbs. The owlish son of a bookkeeper and an electrician, he found fame as critic for the Chicago Sun Times, co-hosted a massively popular TV show (with Gene Siskel), survived alcoholism, wrote a Russ Meyers B pic (Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls) and was lampooned in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla: the incompetent governor of New York is named Mayor Ebert — Ebert responded by writing: “They let us off lightly; I fully expected to be squished like a bug by Godzilla.”

It’s that good humour which is most evident in Life Itself, an insightful, very moving film by Steve James, whose 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams Ebert awarded four stars out of four. Ebert allowed James full access to his hospital ward as he suffered through the final stages of thyroid and salivary gland cancer; though hugely diminished and unable to speak, the Chicago legend still has a twinkle in his eye and a way with a joke.

While warm, it’s no hagiography: the talking heads take their cue from their subject’s famously plain-speaking style. Time critic Richard Corliss recalls the jeremiad he wrote in response to the Siskel & Ebert show, Martin Scorsese disses Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and Siskel’s widow talks through the two critics’ tempestuous relationship. Best of all is the grainy footage of the duo — the Bert and Ernie of the film-criticism world — squabbling like kids in outtakes. “You couldn’t create Siskel and Ebert if you were Frankenstein!” marvels someone who was there.

The life of a film critic is an unlikely subject for a documentary: it’s an occupation, after all, that involves sitting in chairs for long periods, frantically typing and occasionally vying for free pastries. But Ebert is an unlikely man, a big-hearted philosopher who managed to inspire millions simply by watching films and then writing down his thoughts about them. Life Itself does him justice.

A clear-eyed celebration of a giant of film writing. We’ll refrain from the thumb jokes, but consider this a hearty recommendation.