The only thing Roger Ebert loved more than movies was Life Itself, according to the film’s tagline.
Growing up in North America, it would be extremely difficult to not have heard of the late, famed critic. In the 90s, Siskel and Ebert’s “thumbs up” gimmick was everywhere; it was a cash cow that brought critiquing into the mainstream.
Life Itself recounts the surprising and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert – a story that’s personal, wistful, funny, painful, and transcendent.
The film explores Roger Ebert’s legacy: from his Pulitzer-Prize-winning film criticism to his long battle with cancer. Though the picture spends a decent amount of time dissecting his professional life, I would argue that the meat of Life Itself is the exploration of Ebert’s personal life.
Director Steve James shows a very human side of Ebert that the world has rarely seen. Here we see America’s darling critic at his most vulnerable: stuck in a wheelchair, ready to die at any given moment.
At times only Ebert’s wife Chaz can bring him back; she is most certainly his rock. He gives her a note that says, “kill me”; she refuses. He chooses not to painfully climb a set of stairs; she pushes him to do it. While part of the film is about physical suffering, mental suffering factors in as well.
Chaz breaks down and cries in front of the camera. She wants to be there for Ebert and be a great wife, but it’s incredibly stressful and difficult. Their love is a test of mental strength and fortitude, but they push on. Life Itself has a lot to say about life itself.
While the film is less compelling in its exploration of Roger Ebert as a critic, it remains remarkably engaging. The director doesn’t strive for cheesy sentimentality and doesn’t ask us to worship this man. Rather, he asks us to to behold the critic’s humanity.