Film Review by Jeff Sizemore
Picture: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, taken by Kevin Horan
Everything, it seems, comes with a rating nowadays. Thanks to the explosion of the smartphone, aggregation software, and other technologies I won’t pretend to know anything about, it seems that more than ever people are concerned with assessing the definitive worth of anything from music, restaurants, and even people (I’m looking at you, Tinder). There are two main currencies of choice: the dreaded five-star system, with its illusion of fairness and variety (there’s a subtle yet undeniable leap in quality that distinguishes four stars from four-and-a-half, after all), has become the de facto standard, though there’s much to be said about the utter simplicity of the like/dislike system, recognizable by its thumbs pointing up and down, allowing hopeful critics in all circles to imagine themselves as Julius Caesars of cyberspace, granting their mercy or their condemnation as they see fit.
One of the likely culprits for all this blatant thumbing is noted film critic (and Pulitzer Prize-winner, lest you forget) Roger Ebert, now the subject of a film based on his best-selling memoir of the same name: Life Itself. The documentary explores, among many other things, how Ebert, along with his co-host and rival Gene Siskel, came to (accidentally) coin the phrase “two thumbs up” as the ultimate, unrefutable sign of cinematic excellence via their long-running television program. As the film reveals, however, their on-screen criticism was not without its own criticism. The polemic that fellow critic Richard Corliss reads, from a book he published back when Siskel and Ebert and the Movies was in its early seasons, is a fairly transparent condemnation of the duo – for reducing what he believes should be a complex exploration of a work of art to the most basic of responses – that just falls short of sentencing them to death for their crimes against the sanctity of film. “I guess I was a little angry,” Corliss admits in the film, seeming more than a little embarrassed with his younger self for falling prey to the same kind of over-simplification he sought to dismantle.
Director Steve James commits nearly the same offense with Life Itself, though in his case it is not indignation but great affection that is the corrupting emotion. Yet James can hardly be blamed for crafting what amounts to a “thumbs up” movie when one considers the circumstances. The late Roger Ebert left behind a monumental body of work – no small portion of which, amazingly, was produced after his fight with cancer left him jawless and unable to talk or eat – and he was a tireless supporter of film as an art form, championing independent films and filmmakers that otherwise would have toiled in obscurity. This alone would have presented a METACRITICAL nightmare, but add in the fact that at the start of filming Ebert was hospitalized for what would be the final time, and indeed passed before the film could be completed, and James couldn’t help but compose an elegy for his fallen comrade.
In practice, this makes for a wildly uneven experience, as the film seems split between its desires to illustrate Ebert’s memoir, provide insightful interpretive discussions of his life and career through noted filmmakers and critics, and preserve each of his last moments like an explorer rationing a nearly-empty canteen. Perhaps due to all these demands, the film relies heavily on tried and true conventions of the documentary genre, usually at the expense of the more fascinating opportunities presented. For every college newspaper article (showcasing an early genius) or Siskel and Ebert outtake reel (revealing an incredibly complex and often explosive love/hate relationship), there is an unequal number of corny photo montages, talking head interviews unreservedly singing the man’s praises, and the like, all of which undercut the effect of the first-hand documents rather than augmenting them. There is also a nagging return to the “present” as Ebert, hospitalized, struggles to communicate or complete physical therapy, as if to contrast his robust former life with the nightmare his ailments have forced upon him. Yet Ebert himself seems to refute this “tragedy” reading of his story: early on in the documentary we are presented with a quote of his in which he compares his experience of life to finding himself in a movie. If this is the case, Ebert is not only character but director, launching an ambitious website compiling his many reviews (as well as providing a platform for emerging critics) and aggressively blogging and tweeting many more in the years leading up to his death. Thus it
seems disrespectful for the film to play up how “handicapped” the man became, since Ebert was cantankerously unwilling to accept the notion that losing his ability to talk meant losing his voice.
On that note, it seems that the definitive document here would be Life Itself the memoir (which I am now anxious to read) rather than the documentary, which takes great pains to recite passages from it. This is not to say that the film is free from profound moments: no matter how many difficulties Roger Ebert faces in the hospital, he continuously responds to James’s inquiries as to his emotional state with the gesture that brought him his greatest fame (and infamy): a thumbs up, paired with a smile.
Film: Life Itself
Director: Steve James
Runtime: 115 min.