Early in Life Itself, we hear the late film critic Roger Ebert’s famous dictum that the cinema is a “machine that generates empathy.” This is a koan director Steve James has probably taken to heart. He has already released two films that are supremely sensitive to the emotions and environments of large casts of characters. The three protagonists of 2011’s The Interrupters — about non-profit workers attempting to prevent at-risk teenagers from falling into the city’s web of gangs — are trained to both express and cultivate empathy. The director’s masterpiece, Hoop Dreams, begins with two aspirational Chicago teenagers and draws in a broad net of supporting characters, each helping to spin a vast web of interpersonal and institutional travails. Both films ultimately seem to encapsulate a substantial portion of a major American city. Ebert’s 1994 review of Hoop Dreams affirms James’ project, saying the film “gives us the impression of having touched life itself.” The review could have inspired the title of Ebert’s 2012 memoir, which James’ new documentary is based upon.
Ebert earned the respect of most American moviegoers long ago, but he also gained our affection in the final years of his life, as he devoted the bulk of a long, disfiguring, debilitating illness to hashing out his final thoughts, polemics, and clear-eyed reflections on his past and present on his blog. The critic was forthright about his failings and regrets in print: he wrote critically of his time as an alcoholic and womanizer, and of his perhaps too-implicit affection for his longtime television partner, Gene Siskel. James’ film is faithful and forthright in covering these issues, but Life Itself has limits as a piece of cinema: this deeply conventional biographical documentary can’t illuminate Ebert’s life and final months any better than he already did.
Its problems are frustrating and typical of the genre. Even as the film makes an unusually honest attempt to capture a uniquely ambitious, often deeply troubled younger writer, the film’s historical demands overwhelm its attempts to become a character study. Scrapbook montages of Ebert’s work at his college newspaper reveal him to be repeatedly and sometimes boldly on the right side of political and civil rights movements, but talking-head tributes attesting to this take on an unnecessary tone of valorizing historicism. An inordinate amount of time is spent discussing Roger’s regular appearances at the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, but there is no good footage from the reason his appearances were notable: his “Cinema Interruptus” series, of shot-by-shot analyses of classic films. (In contrast, there is curiously little about his annual Overlooked Film Festival.) Too many of Life Itself’s editorial choices feel as if they were made by committee, and too few seek to connect with Ebert’s ongoing reckoning with his past and present selves.
The film is at its best talking about the movies and about Ebert’s work talking about the movies. There is a priceless sequence about the Ebert-penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which features an armchair review by Martin Scorsese and a bit where New York Times critic (and sometime At the Movies co-host) A.O. Scott eloquently dances around the word “breasts,” as he might in one of his own pieces. Better still is footage from the sets of the television shows Ebert conducted with Siskel, which provide the film’s richest drama and its most probing engagement with Ebert’s psychology. (The sociological differences between the two are particularly well drawn, especially compared with the unconvincing, perfunctory manner in which the duo are situated within or apart from the Sarris-Kael critical axis of the 1960s and 70s.) The friendship of Siskel and Ebert seems all the fiercer and more poignant when the film transitions to moments of an ailing Ebert — jawless, with a strap of skin for a chin and fluorescent light peering through his mouth — engaging with his readers, continuing their lives’ work. Ebert’s face is left in a permanent, Lynchian smile, an image particularly fraught during his feedings. Despite this, it’s heartening how often the smile appears to be genuine, especially in the presence of his wife, Chaz. The opportunity to bear witness to her support and grace in the face of Ebert’s tumultuous experience in and out of the hospital is the film’s most unique and crucial asset, and James’ portrayal of her is characteristically rich.
In the end, though, this is a legacy documentary, and it suffers from the tired habits of the genre. Life Itself is structurally non-committal, lurching awkwardly through multiple hackneyed framing devices and becoming redundant in its talking-head adulation. (The film’s rapturous reception among the critical establishment is unsurprising, but it shouldn’t be: these articles are tributes to a man and a profession, not film analyses.) James tries to present both a comprehensive historical portrait and a lived-in experience of the critic, but these goals end up being at odds with one another. Too broad in its thrust and too shallow in its inquiry, the film tries to portray a man but too often succumbs to hagiography.