I never had much use for Roger Ebert’s movie reviews much less his politics, so I wasn’t super keen on seeing Life Itself, a documentary of his life and final days. I was amused by the whopping 97% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes: A film about a film critic? Must be awesome!
But the audience gives it a hearty 91% as well, and even with that being skewed toward fans, it’s a strong rating. And this is a good movie, a heart-warming portrayal of a flawed, but interesting character that Siskel and Ebert would’ve both given thumbs-up to.
I should warn you: of all the movies I’ve seen in the past decade, this is the least popcorn-appropriate.
Ebert had cancer from dental treatments received as a child. (My mom had a similar thing for acne, and makes routine trips to the dermatologist to get melanomas removed. Maybe the ‘40s and ’50s were a little too gung-ho on the radiation, eh?) A few years back, his jaw had to be removed, and the reconstruction failed (and nearly killed him) so in his last years, he just had a mouth flap.
That was hard for me to see. He was upbeat, even in these final days, viewing death as just another part of life. And it was interesting to discover that his approach to dealing with his cancer was in part due to being hurt by Siskel’s approach to his cancer. Siskel kept it quiet until very late, surprising everyone. So Ebert decided he would tell everybody what was happening along the way.
You know what? Both approaches are valid. Siskel wanted to spend his last year enjoying the company of his wife and children without his death hanging over their heads. Ebert didn’t want anyone to be shocked or unprepared.
Although there’s a lot more to this movie than Siskel & Ebert, their relationship was my favorite part of the film. Antagonistic, even openly hostile at times, the two grew to be genuine friends, and this is detailed through outtakes of their popular TV show.
They showed two classic TV moments I personally remember prominently: One was their appearance on the Tonight Show where Carson asks them about bad movies that are out, and Ebert says he can’t recommend The Three Amigos with Chevy Chase sitting on the couch next to him. Ebert is very gracious and complimentary toward Chase, and Chase handles it with his usual aplomb. (That is, kinda like a dick, but also fairly funny when doing material from the ’70s.)
But the more interesting moment came in an episode of their where they reviewed both Full Metal Jacket and Benji, The Hunted. Siskel gets his knickers in a twist because Ebert doesn’t like FMJ, then gets into a bigger snit because he gives a thumbs up to BTH. Ebert doesn’t phrase his defense well, in my opinion, but he raises the valid point that movies must be judged on what they are, not in comparison to arbitrary other works.
Joe Camp did good work with Benji (including one of Chevy Chase’s best movies, Oh, Heavenly Dog!) and he made good family flicks. He’ll never achieve the towering greatness of Stanley Kubrick, but you’re not always in the mood to see elevators full of blood.
In the end, using the Bitmaeltrom Three-Point Documentary Scale:
1. Ebert, in the end, is a worthy subject for a documentary. He did interesting things and believed passionately in what he did. He loved his family and they loved him back, and he made a contribution to the industry.
2. Steve James (Prefontaine, “Hoop Dreams”) directs largely by getting out of the way and letting the material speak for itself. There’s a lot to be said for that style when you have an interesting subject and lots of good primary material, as well as a lot of good interviews to draw on.
3. The spin. Well, look, it’s a bit of a hagiography. That’s okay, I think, though I imagine there are some filmmakers who wouldn’t agree. Ebert might not, come to think of it.
But that’s okay, too, because this isn’t “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies” and I’ve never cared for “thumbs down” or “thumbs up” ratings. (This is actually a point raised by other film critics here.) I’ve always preferred Joe Bob Briggs style reviews where he might talk for the entire thing about how awful a film is, give it zero stars and then end his review with “Check it out.” (He even used to offer t-shirts to people who could sit through certain movies to the end.)
The Boy really enjoyed it, too, and he didn’t know anything about Ebert or the time-periods in question, so that says something.
Bitmaelstrom says “Check it out.”