Film Review: Life Itself

It seems strange to me to be sitting down, writing a review, about a documentary detailing arguably the world’s most famous film reviewer. Roger Ebert. A man who essentially defined his industry and created his genre. Ebert redefined film reviewing into a simple formula – yes or no: is this film any good?

Roger Ebert died in April 2013, after a long and disfiguring battle with cancer and while a large portion of this documentary about him had been concluded by then, you cannot help but feel that the intervening 12 months before its release, while the finishing touches were applied, have overwhelmingly shaped a lot of the final product.

Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert (At The Movies) - Life Itself

The documentary is based upon his own memoirs and virtually ignores the disease that destroyed the final chapters of his life. Instead it is very focussed upon his professional career, especially his working relationship with Gene Siskel, and the film review television show that they fronted during the 1980s and 1990s. However, it takes a very reflective and objective view of this. It simply presents the fact in a linear timeline. And as a result, feels too simplistic and lacking in any real sense of emotional depth.

You never really connect to Roger Ebert, he’s shown on screen defying the odds, battling through life: positively and without faltering enthusiasm for his passions but you never really get to meet him. He’s just there. On screen.

Instead, the depth is meant to come from “talking head” interviews with his family and friends that intersperse archive footage, but they never feel quite right. The stories are there and the memories still fresh, but everyone feels like they are treading on eggshells. Afraid to say the wrong thing, or upset the wrong person. Shown perfectly, by the recalling of one story that is precursed by the statement “I don’t think Roger will think this a betrayal…”

And this creates a real problem, because Ebert is obviously a fascinating and likeable man, but we’re never let in. We’re never allowed to build our own relationship with him and therefore, we never get to build any trust in the documentary.  Life Itself feels in a bizarre way, more like a filmed obituary rather than a narrative life story you connect to. He obviously lead a fascinating life but it’s never fully presented. It’s bullet point story telling.

Roger Ebert (Cancer) - Life Itself

Cancer caused Roger Ebert to lose the ability to eat, drink or speak. And yet throughout there are passages of the source memoir narrated over the footage. Narrated in the first person. And I just couldn’t accept that. We’re shown a man disfigured from illness in a way that will leave you stunned, shocked at saddened at the fragility of human life, and then suddenly we asked to believe that we’re listening to him speak. It just doesn’t work.

For all it’s faults and for every complaint I have about Life Itself, at it’s heart is the life of somebody who has influenced his chosen industry and passionate love in a way that so many crave to emulate. And while I never fully connected with it, never felt truly on board with the shallow and unfulfilling story it’s limited to, I must admit, that I did still enjoy it. I just wish that it had a bit more strength and a bit more courage in it’s convictions to know what exactly it wanted to say.

7 out of 10 stars (7 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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