Life Itself, based on Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoirs, feels like three movies rolled into one. The first movie consists of a generic tableau of the early life of Roger Ebert, with sporadic moments of real insight into the man’s persona. I say sporadic because throughout the first third of the movie, I’m reticent to say I found myself somewhat…bored. Sure, it was interesting to learn that Mr. Ebert was a recovering alcoholic. As a fan, I was surprised to learn this for the first time watching the film. It was also interesting to learn how he came to work for the Chicago Sun-Times, what his friends thought of his taste in women, how he came to write the screenplay for Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, particularly the motivation for his involvement in the Russ Meyer production: “boobs.” All this is great to discover, but I felt oddly removed, it all seemed rather antiseptic, that there was something missing which didn’t allow me to truly connect with the person. One would think that the story of Roger Ebert, a personality so large in a field that I am also passionate about, would hold me glued to to the screen. But the first third of this movie fell somewhat flat for me.
Perhaps it was the jumping in time from Mr. Ebert’s early years to the last years of his life. Perhaps it was the glossing over of his family life as a child (we don’t learn much about his parents). Perhaps it was the jarring mixture of the electronic voiceover narration from his computer (which Ebert used to communicate after his thyroid surgery) combined with the live voiceover from either Ebert himself (or from an excellent voice imitator) and the director Steve James (Hoop Dreams). Perhaps the filmmaking technique wasn’t interesting to me. Perhaps it was the dearth of interview footage with Ebert; the few clips of him being interviewed in his prime are captivating. What I can say with certainty is that the film almost does a disservice to Mr. Ebert by segueing into the second act/film and sparking to life once Gene Siskel enters the picture. Of course, there’s no way around the fact that Siskel played a prominent role in Ebert’s career, ensuring that Siskel had to be featured in the film centering around Roger Ebert. There’s an abundance of behind the scenes footage which had me riveted. I had seen some You Tube clips of the two critics bickering with each other both on camera during their iconic program as well as behind the scenes, during the taping of program promos, seemingly loathing each other, one step away from wringing each other’s neck. We see Siskel’s wife in an interview who sticks up for her husband when she speaks of the battles between the two critics. Then we see shots of the two of them appearing on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson and all is well with the world. And inevitably, we see the passing of Gene Siskel and learn that despite the rivalry between the two, they considered themselves brothers to each other.
The film then moves into its third act, where it settles solidly on Mr. Ebert’s travails battling thyroid cancer. This final act is at once heartwarming and heartbreaking. Although we’ve seen footage of Mr. Ebert post-surgery in the first two acts, we see it resolutely here in the conclusion. The camera is unflinching at revealing the devastating nature of the disease which robbed Mr. Ebert of his lower jaw, his speech, his ability to eat solid foods. We the public saw the positive spirit of Mr. Ebert during this traumatic period, but the film brings home how truly courageous he was and how unpleasant the multiple surgeries were. But the star of the third act is, without question, Chaz Ebert. Once she appears onscreen, she takes the narrative in a direction for which even the word ‘inspirational’ is too inadequate a description. Watching her, listening to her speak about her husband, it struck me what was possibly missing from the first act–Chaz Ebert. Although she obviously wasn’t in Ebert’s life early on, I would’ve nonetheless loved to have heard her talk about Ebert’s early life. Of course, he would’ve shared stories from his past with her during the couse of their marriage; the passion in her voice would’ve trumped hearing an electronic vocal facsimile or a vocal imitator (if in fact it was an imitator delivering Ebert’s quotes). The love between the two of them is palpable. We would all be lucky to have a Chaz Ebert in our lives.
I was afraid that the film would seek to manipulate me and my fellow viewers by focusing on the struggle of the disease. I went in desiring to see a complete portrait of a man whose work I admired, but that I knew very little about. I’m not sure that this film delved deeply enough into who Roger Ebert was as a person, outside of all the accolades and the success as a critic. It goes without saying I walked out of the theater knowing more about him than when I walked in. His alcoholism spoke to troubling times in his life, and there were tender subtle moments: giving a positive review to a young African-American female filmmaker who felt “safe” handing her film over to him; the promise to a young filmmaker that he would screen his film, with the stipulation that he might not like it; the handing down of a prized possession to said filmmaker. I wanted more depth in areas where the film skimmed the surface and I wanted more of those personal moments early on. And while it was satisfying (and necessary) to see the real relationship between Siskel and Ebert, in the end, I was most moved by seeing his courageous battle with cancer and the strength of his wife and family. I was saddened but sympathetic to his eventual surrender to the disease. James puts some of the actual text messages onscreen between him and Ebert to illustrate their conversations during his illness; one text message in particular hit me, and I’m sure everyone else, like a ton of bricks. But, unlike many of the films Mr. Ebert reviewed in his latter years, I never once felt manipulated. 3.5/5 reels