Life Itself

Movie Review #797: ‘Life Itself’ earns two thumbs up.

By Alexander Diminiano

Documentary, Biography
Rated R (contains sexual content, nudity, profanity)
115 minutes

At the time that I read Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, all I really knew about him was that he was a film critic. I’d been writing movie reviews of my own for a few months at that point, but I’d never really read Roger’s. But when I read Life Itself, days after it hit the shelves in late 2011, my eyes were opened to a critic who wrote like a poet, who absolutely loved the movies more than anything else in the world, and who had a story to tell, out of his own appreciation for and fascination with life itself.

The term “life itself” fits Roger better than any. The phrase comes out as if unnoticed when referring to Roger not as the film critic he was (and still is) but as the spirited, charming, and intellectual man that he was (and still is). Thus “Life Itself” is the perfect title for this documentary, which is a perfect capitalization on how Roger affected the world around him. What’s most amazing is what should be obvious to us, but isn’t: it wasn’t just the movies that changed because of him. It was people, too. “Life Itself” establishes that while Roger could be extremely egocentric in the name of movies, he also had a bigger heart than imaginable, and that too was because he loved cinema. Moments in “Life Itself” with this particular message broke me down into tears. One in particular involved a virtual unknown director, Ramin Bahrami, who received an old jigsaw puzzle from Roger during his later years. This was an heirloom, first belonging to Alfred Hitchcock, before being passed down to Marilyn Monroe, Laura Dern, and then Roger. The letter from Laura Dern to Roger is read, and then Bahrami recounts Ebert telling him to do as the previous owners did: to pass it down to someone who deserves it. There’s no way that on paper this sounds as poignant as it feels watching Bahrami explain this all to us. As a matter of fact, can anyone conclude that any scene is truly outstanding unless they’ve watched it?

“Life Itself” is a documentary, but it’s not like a documentary. Steve James helms the film as an honest look into this man’s life, and more importantly, a movie about a character. It’s the ultimate truth that Roger was, in all 70 years of his life, a character (though not a fictional one). This is a study of Roger’s life through the lens of human emotion. It’s a celebration of pathos both in Roger’s life and in the movie. It’s is a documentary of a man who reformed the movies. In fact, Roger lived the movies, and yet “Life Itself” is not about the movies. That focus might be what’s best about it.

I’ll say it again. “Life Itself” does not act as a documentary. It informs, but not nearly as much as it evokes laughter, tears, and creates a sense that Roger still remains with us through his writing. It’s not about the movies, but it’s nonetheless a cinematic masterpiece. And I know I’m the millionth individual to say it, but surely every time the following is said, the statement reinforces how true to Ebert the movie is. So I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: “Life Itself” earns two thumbs up.


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