“Life Itself,” Reviewed: Thumbs Up.

life itself (magnolia)

Every review is inherently subjective, and any reviewer who pretends otherwise is full of … well, something other than passion for his work. I bring this up now because there’s no way I can pretend to be objective about Life Itself (rated R, now available on VOD), the biographical documentary about the life and career of the late film critic Roger Ebert. Most critics pay attention to other critics – it’s practically a prerequisite for learning how to approach the craft – and it would have been impossible to follow film criticism in the last 30 years without being affected in some way by Ebert, who revolutionized the form in good ways and bad.

I also met Ebert a few times, though he wouldn’t have remembered me; and I deeply admired his writing, if not his particular cinematic tastes. This hefty disclosure is my way of stating that my affection for Life Itself is tainted in all the best ways, and so when I say it’s probably one of the year’s best films, you’ll have to take it with an entire shaker of salt.

About 20 years ago Steve James made a small doc called Hoop Dreams, about inner-city kids who pinned their hopes for survival on their ability to play basketball. It was well regarded but little-seen at first, and it’s fair to say that Ebert (with his colleague and sparring partner Gene Siskel) was uniquely responsible for shifting the tide in that regard. More than a lot of critics, Ebert took on certain films (and filmmakers) as personal causes, and Hoop Dreams benefited from his tenacious advocacy. It’s fitting, then, that James would take on the task of adapting Ebert’s own bestselling memoir, Life Itself, a generation later. Hoop Dreams doesn’t figure into the Ebert doc, but the mutual trust and high regard between filmmaker and subject are obvious throughout the two-hour running time.

Narratively, the film is a pretty straightforward biopic, following Ebert’s early life in Illinois; his early maturation as a writer and editor of his college newspaper in the early 1960s; and his move after graduation to the Chicago Sun-Times, where he was soon assigned the film critic’s job and where he stayed for the rest of his career. Interspersed throughout these flashbacks are scenes of the more recent past, as Ebert, supported by his wife and extended family, adapted to a series of profound medical challenges that ultimately claimed his life in April 2013.

It’s hard to be a good critic without being arrogant, and Life Itself doesn’t skimp on its portrayal of Ebert – with the apparent endorsement of its subject – as less than humble. As he evolved beyond the printed page into a television career as the co-host of a series of half-hour movie-review programs, he developed a peculiar relationship with Siskel, a competing critic for the Chicago Tribune. Neither man wanted to share the stage with the other, and both looked at the show – and the remarkable way its “Thumbs Up/Down” reductionism shackled them together while also popularizing film criticism like never before – as a blend of blessing and curse. Siskel died of cancer in 1999, but his widow appears in the film to offer his side of the story; and the doc includes outtakes from various episodes that showcase the comic bickering between the TV stars.

At turns funny and tragic, Life Itself finds and holds that precarious balance between illumination and affection. James found old Chicago barroom buddies of Ebert (from the days prior to his acknowledgment of his alcoholism, also addressed in the film), all of whom offer up tales of a bawdy, bespectacled raconteur who epitomized the twin stereotypes of old-school journalism and timeless Windy City boisterousness. Ebert played hard and he worked hard, and he was lucky enough to be paid to combine both practices during his trips to Cannes and in his steady diet of six movies a week. 70 is too young to die, but this film presents its subject as a man who lived a fortunate life – not just in terms of fame and wealth, but in discovering what he loved early and spending the rest of his years sharing that passion with anyone who would listen.

It’s one of the best films of the year. I hope you’ll seek it out.

(IMAGE: Roger Ebert in a scene from Life Itself. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Films.)