Anyone who has watched a few movies in his life has heard of Roger Ebert. Every film buff on Twitter has followed Ebert. Pretty much every single person who has written columns on cinema has drawn inspiration from Ebert. So how does a film buff write about a film based on the life of the single greatest film critic of all time? Such is the conundrum of Life Itself, an achingly beautiful Ebert biopic by filmmaker Steve James.
I have never been, and will most probably never be as insightful and charming a film writer as Ebert, so there is no way I can do justice to his biopic. But I can tell you Life Itself is a unique film. A story such as this one has never been told before. The protagonist of the movie is a film critic, a largely unknown job description in the mainstream world. For a film lover, an Ebert biopic works as catharsis after his tragic passing a year ago. For someone unfamiliar with Ebert's work Life Itself is an entertaining, and occasionally moving look at a fascinating, passionate movie geek.
Director Steve James carried a camera around Ebert during his last days in the hospital. It makes you mad to see Ebert, the singular voice of cinema in the hospital bed unable to talk. You despise cancer when you see Ebert wincing in pain while swallowing food through a tube. The bitter one-two punch of irony hits you: a guy whose only passion in life – talking about movies – has lost his voice and is dependent on the only other passion in his life – writing – to communicate with others. You begin to wonder if all the filmmakers whom Ebert wasn't kind to in his reviews hurled a big ball of voodoo karma towards him.
But when the footage cuts to his younger self, you realize Ebert wasn't a bitter old man critical of everything in life. He loved movies. He adored them. He was obsessed with them. He bonded more with movies than with people. He found movies more humane than actual humans. He didn't just wax eloquent about cinema, he won you over with his love for the art. It is easy to be a pretentious snob about cinema, but it is extremely difficult to render concise thoughts about a movie in simple words. It is easy to write prose comprising of thousands of words to dissect the art of an art form. But it is extremely tough to go on TV and tell the mainstream crowd the merits and setbacks of a movie without being unfair and simplistic. And Ebert made it look so easy. And when he lost it all, he reinvented himself on Twitter on blogs, and he was stronger than before.
The one criticism the film deserves is that it doesn't tell you more about Ebert than what a self-respecting film buff already knows. But even going through the motions is poignant for an Ebert fan, and folks like Scorsese and Ramin Bahrani show up to render you some moist tear glands.
The best segment of the film is when it weaves through Ebert's love hate bromance with Gene Siskel during their stint on their television show. It was a complicated relationship, a searing rivalry as a result of clashing intellect and egos. Director James puts together some of the choicest moments between Ebert and Siskel bickering and snapping at each other behind the scenes. It's clear that they were jealous of each other, but also in awe and in love with each other. They couldn't live without each other, and the TV audiences were only more entertained when they disagreed with each other. A movie on Siskel and Ebert would be entertaining as hell. My thoughts hover to Philip Seymour Hoffman as Ebert, but that's an opportunity that would sadly never come either.