It was inevitable that the mourning period for the people who knew the great film critic Roger Ebert — either personally (like me) or through his writing — would end with a movie.
Thankfully, that movie, Steve James’ documentary "Life Itself," is a good one — a movie Roger would have enjoyed watching, and one in which he would have been proud to be participating.
Filmmaker Steve James presents a warts-and-all portrait of film critic Roger Ebert that’s touching, funny and heartbreaking all at once.
Where » Tower Theatre.
When » Opens Friday, July 25.
Rating » R for brief sexual images/nudity and language.
Running time » 120 minutes.
James owes Ebert his career, since Ebert and his then-partner, Gene Siskel, championed James’ first film, "Hoop Dreams," back in 1994. James returns the favor by adapting Ebert’s 2011 memoir, "Life Itself," and capturing sometimes hard-to-take moments of the weeks before his death on April 4, 2013.
The movie plays on four intertwining tracks. One goes back to look at Ebert’s life, either quoting from the memoir (read by a voice actor, Stephen Stanton) or interviewing his old friends. These moments reveal an ambitious young man, a gifted writer at the Chicago Sun-Times, sometimes a know-it-all jerk, and an alcoholic who attended his first AA meeting in 1979 and never drank again.
The second chronicles his partnership with Siskel, the film critic for the rival Chicago Tribune and, because of that, his professional enemy. James interviews the team’s former TV producers and Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, and features some amazingly funny clips of the two men at work. These passages reveal how a tempestuous relationship transformed over time, and almost against both men’s wills, into brotherly love that lasted up to Siskel’s death from brain cancer in 1999.
The third examines the movies Ebert reviewed and the filmmakers he championed — a list that runs from Martin Scorsese (one of the movie’s executive producers) and Errol Morris to newcomers like Ramin Bahrani ("Goodbye Solo") and Ava DuVernay ("Middle of Nowhere").
The fourth track, and actually the backbone of the film, is Ebert’s 20-year romance with his wife, Chaz. The film tells how they got together and shows us in unflinching detail how their love endured — especially as Ebert fought cancer in his salivary gland that left him unable to speak. (If you’re squeamish about medical procedures, like suction, you might cover your eyes a few times.)
James doesn’t sugar-coat Ebert’s illustrious life, his sometimes-large ego or the health struggles that took up his last years. He presents a complete story, the good and the bad, with clear eyes and a full heart — and a shared love for the movies.
"Life Itself" becomes more than a story about one man, or about the movies, but a thoughtful look at how we deal with death and loss. Ebert once said (in a clip that begins the movie) that "the movies are like a machine that generates empathy," and this movie creates empathy for a man who had a good life and knew it was time to go.
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