Life Itself (2014) (R)
Pretty much any American movie critic or amateur critic has a long way to climb before the reach the peak of the most famous. Not that it all is about fame or money or the like...Roger knew that. I'm sure he could have written a much better review than what this one is starting out to be.
Roger Ebert casts the longest shadow in critics' history. He's the first movie critic to be awarded the Pulitzer and his name was almost so well-known that his figure became a household discussion piece. People love to talk about movies, people love to argue about movies and Roger Ebert knew this better than most.
"Life Itself" is a movie about Roger's last days and his beginning days in journalism. The movie spends no great amount of time dwelling on the childhood of the boy, besides portraying a somewhat typical yet still slightly dysfunctional family dynamic. Instead, it focuses on Roger's love affair with words, journalism, and movies.
Not starting out as a movie critic, it was just a position offered to him, Roger quickly became a credible critic of Chicago and even more so when he and partner in crime Gene Siskel started their television program.
"Life Itself" is interested in the behind the scenes of the shows and moments that you may already know quite well. If you think you know the Siskel & Ebert show, maybe you don't know how much they fought together. Albeit, that knowledge is somewhat common, but it's another thing altogether to see the outtakes of the two fighting and mocking each other while talking head interviewees state how much they grew to love one another.
"Life Itself" doesn't present the prettiest side of Roger Ebert, often drawing the words straight from his autobiography itself, which shares the title for this film. The movie talks about Roger's alcoholism and the fact that he was very open about his struggles. It also takes time to pity Roger and salute his courage for the way he received the news of Siskel's death and what happened when he himself was diagnosed with cancer.
Perhaps the most intimate moments of the film are shot in the hospital with Chaz and Roger. As much as the movie is an ode to an old soul lost from the world of film, it is much more about the power of finding your soulmate. Love, if you will. There is nothing so heartbreaking and simultaneously heartwarming as seeing Chaz Ebert talk about her late husband with all the emotion and dignity that one can muster. Their love is so evident.
Roger's early days were wild and his latter days were filled with one set-back after the other. Director Steve James often places himself into the movie by asking Roger direct questions. It's clear the both Roger and James wanted the movie to be brutally honest about what he had to go through and where he had been.
The movie doesn't paint an idealized version of the man, in fact you may come away from it thinking about how Roger was just another guy with an unfair amount of problems. Maybe that's the point of it all. Maybe we are supposed to realize that Roger Ebert promotes the idea of finding love, being loved, and doing what you love.
Maybe it's too much love....and maybe this is where I have an issue with the movie.
Everyone is so careful of what they say, so meticulous in the words they choose that you can't help but wonder if they're really being genuine or if they're just honoring one of their heroes.
Roger Ebert left behind a huge legacy, but "Life Itself" is sadly not it. It's a good movie; but it is never interesting enough to make the viewer earnestly invested and it never really tries to answer the hardest questions.
It is an emotional movie; but it's a celebration above that; and for that, you can't really fault Steve James.
Posted by Micah Jones