Life Itself has little in common with Happy Valley, a doc about the Penn State child abuse case, but I saw them back-to-back and some small connective tissue popped out at me: they both examine the way that your legacy is truly decided right before you die. Joe Paterno was, until the last few months of his life, a towering hero, but the revelation of his complicity in turning a blind eye to child sexual abuse tarnished him forever. Roger Ebert was an interesting, if secondary, pop cultural figure until he got sick and dealt with it in public with great bravery. Would anyone have even made an Ebert documentary if he had never gotten sick?
In many ways Life Itself says no. Ebert’s life isn’t that interesting - which isn’t surprising, since he was a film critic and we spend a lot of time doing the very uncinematic activities of watching movies and then writing about them. The doc covers Ebert’s alcoholism quickly, briefly talks about his long-time singledom, and touches on the controversy Siskel & Ebert’s thumbs rating system generated with more intellectual film critics, but what will stick with viewers is footage of Ebert, his empty jaw hanging slack, sitting in a hospital bed getting fluids suctioned out of his neck, his eyes squinting with a pain he can never again vocalize. Filmmaker Steve James started working with Ebert on the doc just five months before he died, and as such the critics’ illness and looming demise distorts the whole film. Life Itself isn’t a documentary about a film critic who fought cancer, it’s a film about a guy fighting cancer who happened to be a film critic.
The fact that the movie was made during Ebert’s illness leads to lots of eulogizing in the interviews; whether talking while he was sick or right after his death, no interview subject seems willing to truly have a problem with Ebert. Gene Siskel’s wife tells a story about Ebert snagging a cab from her when she was eight months pregnant, but that story ends with her explaining Roger isn’t that guy anymore. Even Richard Corliss, who famously went tet-a-tet with Ebert in the pages of Film Comment over the way the thumbs reduced film criticism to meaninglessness, seems to feel bad about going after the guy. And this is in a movie where one of the interview subjects exclaims “Fuck Pauline Kael!,” so there’s no reason to keep the gloves on.
Which isn’t to say that the doc should have tried to muddy Ebert’s legacy. Life Itself is a tribute to Ebert, not truly a doc about him. It’s Steve James’ final eulogy for his friend and the critic who is seen as jump-starting his career. Taken on that level, Life Itself is a touching remembrance. But as a biographical documentary, Life Itself never sheds enough light on why Ebert matters. It spends a lot of time with Ebert the patient, the brave warrior and the man with a family, but the doc doesn’t dive into what legacy the man left for other writers. Part of the problem, of course, is that there’s no distance between the end of the man’s life and the making of this film.
That said, there is one spectacular moment where Martin Scorsese comes to the verge of tears recalling a low period in his life, just after he had kicked coke and his third marriage had fallen apart. Siskel and Ebert honored him with an achievement award, and Scorsese says the event rekindled him, put him back into a place where could pick himself back up and get back to work. It's the most interesting and personal view of the relationship between critics and filmmakers I've ever seen, although I suspect a lot of filmmakers will believe this is only going to give us critical types bigger heads.
One last note: Life Itself is a movie made for a crowd who thinks it’s really wacky that Ebert wrote the incredible Russ Meyer movie Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I think it’s the best thing Ebert ever did, and that’s not an attempt to belittle his other work - Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a masterpiece. A better version of this movie would understand why Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was so good and would use it to help us understand who Roger Ebert was.