Life Itself (Magnolia Pictures, R)

ebert sqHere’s hoping this is just the first in a long dialogue about Ebert and his influence on modern American movie culture.

 

ebert 500 

When Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself was released in 2011, I ran right out and bought it right away. Sounds right up my alley, right?: an autobiography of one of the nicest and most-respected film critics to have ever worked in America. And while the book isn’t bad, exactly, it is something of a letdown; there’s not really a narrative through line, but it’s more short essays about his life, with each essay being approximately the same length as a film review (i.e., pretty short). And most of it wasn’t really even about movies.

My hopes were similarly high for Steve James’ documentary adaptation of the book. Although it focuses more on the last couple of years of Ebert’s life, the film, on the whole, is traditionally biographical. Of course, James is the highly esteemed documentarian (and, like Ebert, a Chicagoan) behind such films as Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, with the former being Ebert’s pick as the single best film to come out in the 1990s (Pulp Fiction was #2), so him making this film seemed right somehow.

The film version of Life Itself isn’t nearly as episodic as the book was, and has a somewhat more focused approach to Ebert’s life in the movies—though it doesn’t give the short shrift to, say, his struggles with drinking in the ’70s, or his terrific wife Chaz, whom Ebert met when he was 50. Life Itself is aided by interviews with a bunch of people I like, including the great Werner Herzog and his friend Errol Morris. (Morris says he wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for Ebert, and much as I love him, I’m inclined to believe that statement.) There’s even an interview with the Ebert-championed Ramin Bahrani, a filmmaker I haven’t ever really connected with, which serves as one of the highlights of the film.

Even so, Life Itself feels just a little bit dry. It isn’t the type of film I expect people to dislike or regret seeing, but it’s missing a certain something I hoped it would have; it’s a little too traditional, too surface-level, too generic. In some ways, it feels like the film (and the memoir that came before it) is paving the way for a later, better book and/or film about Ebert, but there’s some formal stuff that needs to get out of the way first. For example, I and pretty much everyone else was aware of the surgery Ebert had in 2006 that removed his lower jaw, and had seen pictures of the result, most notably in that famous 2010 Esquire article. What I hadn’t seen was video footage of him after this surgery, or a profile image, in which it’s all the more pronounced that he had about 30% of his face removed. For anyone who cares about Ebert (which is pretty much everyone in the film industry), this footage, of course coupled with the fact that it was taken at the end of his life, will be hard to take. It’s never handled inappropriately or in a sensationalist manner, but it’s upsetting all the same.

I had the good fortune to meet and speak with Mr. Ebert for some time in January 2005 at the Sundance Film Festival, and he was as exceptionally nice and welcoming as pretty much everyone in this film says he is. He’s one of a very small number of film critics I’ve ever encountered who I felt I understood, even when I disagreed with their assessment(s) of a movie (which happened pretty often). I have him to thank for a number of things I hold dear: modern American film criticism, filmmakers like Errol Morris and Steve James, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Here’s hoping Life Itself is just the first in a long dialogue about Ebert and his influence on modern American movie culture. | Pete Timmermann

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