To be a movie critic writing about Life Itself is to feel a ghost looking over your shoulder—but then, writers are a haunted bunch. You can pretend they're the friendly spirits of those whom you admire and want to emulate. But really, they're the specters you're terrified of disappointing.
So it's a double whammy to write about this movie, a documentary about the life of Roger Ebert and based on his memoir by the same name. There's not a movie critic working today in English (and, I'd guess, a few other languages) who doesn't owe Ebert some debt. Ebert wrote about movies for the Chicago Sun-Times and then his blog for nearly fifty years, and along with Gene Siskel on their show At the Movies, his way of thinking and talking about movies profoundly influenced what Americans went to see at the theater for decades. (They quite literally invented the legendary "two thumbs up!" movie poster tagline.)
Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), the film traces the contours of Ebert's life, from his youth in working-class Chicago through his years as a swaggering college newspaper editor turned storytelling tavern-goer into his career with the Sun-Times and on television and, finally, his personal life, including his marriage to his wife Chaz and relationship with her children and grandchildren. The filmmakers began making the movie while Ebert was in the hospital, and he appears in it throughout. They didn't know he'd pass away while they were still shooting.
That Ebert died on April 4, 2013 adds pathos and heft to the film, no doubt, but even without that element it's affecting—the sheer span of history it recounts boggles the mind. It's also funny and clever and witty. And further, Life Itself is an apologetic for film criticism as a vital act of cultural production, one that is in constant interplay with the movies themselves and the people who make them.
Life Itself treats Ebert's life as one of two intertwined narrative strands. Anecdotes from his past (taken from the memoir) are worked in between remembrances from friends, colleagues, and acquaintances: Siskel's widow, the bartender from the tavern he frequented as a young man, Martin Scorsese, A.O. Scott, Werner Herzog.
All speak of him tenderly, in awe of his talent and stature—but they never lionize the man. Ebert was no saint, and often very prickly, with a considerable ego. He and Siskel bicker bitterly onscreen. And in the film itself, though he had lost speech when he lost his lower jaw and tongue to cancer, he's still feisty and occasionally petulant, in between his moments of sheer gratitude and love for Chaz, and for the life he's had.
Ebert pushed American film criticism (and, by extension, American filmmaking) like no one else, and that's the other narrative strand of the film: as the story is told, we can see the development of both an art form and a genre of writing right before our eyes. Ebert had a populist's taste—he famously liked Benji more than Full Metal Jacket—while sustaining a connoisseur's eye, recognizing great film for what it was. And he wrote about films accessibly, eschewing a more academic, highbrow form of criticism being practiced by critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris at the same time.