Take a Drink: anytime a character talks about Roger drinking
Do a Shot: during any of Roger and Gene’s fights on set
Take a Drink: for Roger Ebert, may he rest in peace
By: Matt Conway (Two Beers) –
It’s impossible to deny that effect that Roger Ebert has had not only in film criticism, but film itself. Nearly every film critic and film fan out there can talk about the impact that he had in their writing or general appreciation for film up until his death in April 2013. For me, my general introduction into film criticism was with his show At the Movies, which in a lot of ways made film criticism much more general and easy to understand. As I grew up, reading his reviews became a frequent activity, enjoying the way the Pulitzer Prize winner was able to share his opinion with such ease and confidence.
However, when a biopic was announced so quickly after his death, I became somewhat hesitant towards the idea. For a documentary to come so soon after a famous person’s death always leaves me feeling that the film may be an example of hero worship rather than a general view of a person’s life. Thankfully, Life Itself captures the ups and downs of Roger Ebert’s life, while showing just how special of a man he truly was.
Life Itself follows Roger Ebert through three stages of his life. His early years with the Chicago Sun Times, his era on At the Movies, and the final months of his life before his death.
Bringing us the life of the great Roger Ebert is director Steve James. James is one of the best documentarians around, with his film Hoop Dreams topping both Siskel and Ebert’s Best Of list in 1994. James incorporates a great sense of style here, with the music establishing an easy-going kind of nature. James also helps in setting a good pace, as this film’s nearly two hour running time flies by quickly.
For a documentary, James also does a great job in keeping Ebert’s life organized. It’s always a challenge to tackle someone’s life in a two hour film, but James really manages it perfectly. These events of his life are structured into three acts, with the first being his early years, then his time with Gene Siskel, and finally the months leading up to his death. This organization helps in capturing Ebert’s life in a wider perspective.
Perhaps what makes Life Itself work as well as it does is its honesty. Roger Ebert was clearly a one of a kind man, but someone who had his faults for sure. From his trouble with alcoholism to his somewhat arrogant stance at times, Life Itself shows Roger as a rounded person, someone who has their positive traits and their faults. This is necessary for any character piece, as it’s hard to really get behind a person if they are depicted as these perfect people, because that makes them impossible to relate with.
As far as documentaries go, Life Itself does a great job of dishing out a lot of information. Most film fans certainly have a basic grasp on Roger Ebert and his personality, but Life Itself presents a great deal of less talked about information. Many aspects like his childhood life and life with his grandchildren I knew very little about going in, but this was information that helped in gathering a better understanding of who Roger Ebert is. The film even talks about how Gene Siskel traveled around the world with Hugh Hefner, which to me was fascinating.
James’s biggest achievement as a director is how his film captures Roger Ebert less from the perspecive of Roger Ebert the film critic, but of Roger Ebert the person. The great tagline for the poster “the only thing Roger loved more than movies”, represents this film perfectly. Getting an understanding of Roger Ebert as a person is the aspect that I personally wondered the most about going into the documentary, and it works weell, with the film telling how Roger Ebert’s life shaped his film reviews and not the other way around.
For me, Life Itself does spend a bit too much time on Ebert’s final months. For a film that celebrates Roger Ebert’s life, it was tough seeing him struggle constantly throughout the third act of the film, especially with him being in such poor shape. I understand that it’s important to show Ebert’s struggle, but some of it felt like overkill to me.
Also, there are some aspects that Life Itself could have covered more. One time period in particular was the era on At the Movies after Gene Siskel’s death, and his seven year tenure with Richard Roeper. Surprisingly, Roeper did not have a single mention in the film, and despite how questionable he is as a film critic, was an important part in the show and its future. Other details like Ebert’s struggles with writing in his final months and aspects that made his reviews special could have been covered in more detail.
Life Itself is an emotionally involving and informative documentary that should please film fans and non-film fans alike. Most importantly, it captures the heart and passion of Roger Ebert, not only about film, but also life itself .