Based upon the memoir by the same name, “Life Itself” is the autobiography of movie critic extraordinaire, Roger Ebert. This documentary is as much about courage and loyalty as it is about the life of the most famous and brilliant movie critic we have known. Tremendously life-affirming and soul-stirring, “Life Itself” is a portrayal of a man so comfortable with himself that he is always in the present moment, in the face of tremendous challenges towards the end of his life.
That Roger Ebert is described by one friend as “nice, but not that nice” says it all: a personality who loved “big boobs”, booze, and being the center of attention as well as relentlessly following his passion for movies, the medium he considered unique in eliciting empathy in the viewer. Yet there is also the other Roger Ebert: whose remarkable marriage to his soul-mate, Chaz Hammelsmith, took place when he was fifty years old. Chaz’s devotion to Roger and his continuing enthusiasm in the face of dire health are part of why this movie works so well.
Ebert’s tenacious commitment to the cinema as an artistic expression like no other eventually elevated movie criticism to the stature of a Pulitzer Prize, which he won as the first and only movie critic to do so. His championship of emerging young filmmakers not only focuses on Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris but also Ava Duvernay (director of “Selma”).
In addition to Ebert’s pioneering recognition of cinema’s contribution to the art world, “Life Itself” is the story of a beautiful mind who obstinately stood his ground against his colleague Gene Siskel in humorous and sometimes cantankerously acerbic banter. Also a homage to his dignity in the face of a painful cancer that severely limited his ability to critique the movies he so dearly loved, the film presents Ebert’s warmth and humor with an unfiltered intimacy at once painful and reassuring. Having lost all or most of his ability to speak, move, eat, or drink, the unflickering and mischievous twinkle in his eyes remains constant for a man who still sees beauty and joy in the world. That love of life with friends and family is the heart of this movie and what the viewer is privileged to witness.
A candid, sometimes brutally uncomfortable depiction of the end of an extraordinary individual’s life, this film is, nonetheless, a triumph to behold. “Life Itself” is truly “two thumbs up”.