‘Life Itself:’ Film Review

I’m not sure if people know this, but movie screenplays are generally written in a three-act structure.  The first act introduces the characters, setting, and the first major plot point, the second act follows the rising story action and introduces the second major plot point, and their third act provides the story’s climax and resolution.  One of the things you’ll hear screenwriters talk about frequently is their frustration at being able to nail the third act.  They know their characters and they have placed them into a compelling story, but the writer just doesn’t know how to bring about a satisfying ending.  As a filmgoer, how many times have you witnessed a movie that was humming along like a well-oiled machine only to see the climactic wheels fall off?  A weak third act keeps a good movie from being a great one.  Casablanca has a great third act.  Back to the Future has a great third act.  Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has a terrible third act, and not just because it involves aliens.

It’s only fitting, then, that Life Itself, director Steve James’ new documentary about legendary film critic Roger Ebert, would deal with the importance of nailing third acts; however, in this case, it’s the third act of our lives the film is interested in.

I’m not sure many of us knew how sick Roger Ebert really was.  I mean we knew on a certain level.  He’d had his lower jaw removed and could no longer speak, eat, or drink, and that’s truly awful.  But, he was still very much in the public eye and very active as a critic, blogger, and roustabout on social media.  We knew he’d been fighting cancer for years, but how sick could he be and still be that prolific?  He seemed to have weathered a powerful storm but was managing.  He seemed very much full of life.

I can remember the first time I saw that photo of Ebert in Esqurie, four years after his lower jaw had been removed.  I remember the brass balls it took to do that, to say to the world, “Hey, this is what I look like now.”  When I’m in bad fitness shape, I’m reluctant to take my shirt off at a water park.  I can’t imagine posing for a magazine while missing the lower third of my face.  Ebert’s courage in revealing his visage to the world filled me with awe.

The new documentary fills me with a similar kind of awe, not only for the man himself but for his amazing wife Chaz.  It takes a lot of guts to invite a documentarian into your life when you are at some of your lowest points and let him point a camera at you.  Make no mistake, Steve James’ camera was watching Roger Ebert die.

None of the Eberts’ personal fortitude would matter if the movie wasn’t good, and James, the director of Hoop Dreams - both one of the great documentaries and sports films ever made, has crafted a tribute to a man who nailed his third act.

Based somewhat on Ebert’s memoir, which was originally optioned by Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zalian who both serve as executive producers, Life Itself gives us broad strokes of Ebert’s early life.  We learn that he was born to be a newspaperman, working for his hometown paper at age 15.  We learn that Ebert remained loyal to the Chicago Sun Times, even when it was taken over by Rupert Murdoch. 

There’s a really fun passage where Ebert’s one produced screenplay, a Russ Meyer monstrosity called Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, is put under the microscope.  Watching an on-camera interview where Scorsese does his best to tactfully critique Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is worth the price of admission all by itself.  When one of Ebert’s old newspaper buddies is asked what drew Ebert to collaborate with an exploitation director like Meyers, the response is one word: “Boobs.”

Of course, those of us who live outside Chicago would never have known who Roger Ebert was were it not for his television partnership with Gene Siskel, who also had his own battle with cancer.  The film seems to argue that they really did start off hating each other, but their relationship softened over the years.  It was the adversarial nature of the show that made it so good; as a friend of mine once said, watching them really get after each other was like watching your parents fight.

The Siskel and Ebert show had great cultural impact, as it brought film criticism to a mass television audience.  Of course, the show reviewed mainstream movies, but it also championed foreign and independent films, as well.  Werner Herzog appears on camera and talks about how they reviewed one of his early films three times on the show to do all they could to promote it.

One of the most touching moments in the film (and there are many touching moments in it) involves Siskel’s widow reading a letter Ebert had written to her following Siskel’s death.  In the letter, Ebert talks about how his relationship with Gene Siskel was the closest male relationship in his life.

Ebert had a fairly extraordinary third act.  He didn’t get married until he was 50 years old to a pretty fantastic woman.  He worked in a profession in which he was able to earn the respect of the artists whose work he was reviewing.  He kicked cancer’s ass for the better part of a decade.

When Ebert died last spring, I wrote a piece for the site about how much the man’s work had influenced me as a person.  As a young film nerd, his TV show caused me to seek out movies I wouldn’t have probably even known about otherwise.  I remember dragging high school friends to see a lot of these pictures.  Life Itself is required viewing for anybody who was a fan of Ebert either on television or in print.  I think film fans who are too young to have grown up on the show will find a lot to like, as well.

Life Itself is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles and opens wider in the coming weeks.  It’s also available on various streaming services.

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