TMN Movie Review: "Life Itself"

Photo Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Rating: R
Length: 115 minutes
Release Date: July 4, 2014
Directed by: Steve James
Genre: Documentary / Biography

Roger Ebert is one of the most famous film critics of all time, and some might argue that he was the single most famous film critic. Ebert started his career as a screenwriter and penned the screenplay for "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" and its sequels before finding fame as a critic. He and Gene Siskel worked closely together for nearly 20 years before Siskel's death, and he later ran a television show that reviewed films with Richard Roeper. "Life Itself" offers fans an interesting and intriguing look into Ebert's life.

Based on his memoir by the same name, "Life Itself" is less of a documentary and more of a love story devoted to Ebert's life and the people who knew him. Ebert and his wife hand-selected director Steve James to tell his story, and Ebert worked closely with the director even as he found himself in the hospital and dealing with the disease that would later take his life. While his influence radiates from nearly every scene, it's the moments during which the director highlights the different facets of his personality that the film really shines.

James smartly gives viewers a look at his early life and how the decisions he made impacted his future. Viewers see the struggles he had in high school, the success he found as a movie reviewer in Chicago and later the troubles he had in his personal life. Though he and Siskel were close friends, they frequently argued on camera and disagreed on films, which led to problems between the two off screen. James also touches on how the death of his television partner left Ebert reeling and wondering if he would or even could go back to work again.

The film also touches on the relationship that the reviewer shared with exploitation director Russ Meyer. Meyer gave Ebert his start in Hollywood and hired the unknown to pen a screenplay. Best known for his films that featured fast cars and scantily clad women, Meyer remained close friends with Ebert for years. Ebert even gave Meyer ideas for two films that the director later made.

While that relationship is interesting, viewers will also enjoy hearing from Martin Scorsese. Ebert was one of the first critics to give a Scorsese film a positive review, and he even compared the director to the famous directors of Italy. The relationship between the two continued over the years, but the film shows that Ebert never let his personal life get in the way of a good review. He was one of the first critics who gave a negative review of "The Color of Money" when Scorsese first released the film.

Though other documentaries focus primarily on a subject's good side, James never shies away from showing Ebert at his worst. His wife Chaz talks about how the two of them met when Ebert was in the midst of alcoholism and how his alcoholism was so bad at one point that he almost stopped working. While she doesn't credit herself with saving him from the bottle, she does make it clear that if he had continued down the path he was on when they first met, she couldn't have seen them staying together.

Chaz is also upfront about the often antagonistic relationship that Ebert shared with Siskel. The two worked for the same newspaper but didn't speak to each other for several years before winding up on a television show together. Their relationship was so strained that they spent months arguing over who should get top billing on that show. Though the two weren't friendly in the beginning, they later formed a tentative friendship that would last until Siskel's death.

Less than one year after James began work on the documentary, Ebert passed away. Fans of the critic are sure to find some of the moments in the documentary difficult to watch, especially the scenes of the reviewer in his hospital bed. Ebert asked the director to include those moments as a way to show his fans that he was just a man. James himself admitted in the past that he struggled with the decision to include the scenes that showed Ebert as a weak man but that he let Chaz make the final decision. When she discusses the problems she had saying goodbye to the love of her life, there won't be a dry eye in the house.

Roger Ebert was a man who never took himself seriously. Whether it was an appearance on "Saturday Night Life" or giving Russ Meyer an idea for another exploitation film, he believed in having fun every day. "Life Itself" will give viewers a never-before-seen look at the reviewer and help them understand why many think the film is a shoe in for an Oscar nomination.