Film critic Pauline Kael commanded admiration. David Thomson compels a distanced respect. But Roger Ebert was loved. Life Itself, the new Ebert documentary from Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Prefontaine), is an oddly diffuse portrait. It attempts to capture the famed film reviewer's boyhood and young career, his contentious history with TV co-host Gene Siskel, his late-life marriage and the cancer that took away his jaw and made his mouth into a dangling price tag. But what emerges is Ebert's overflowing cup of humanity: his seemingly endless capacity for joy, as well as his often petulant narcissism and need to be liked. One saw, in his reviews, a man deeply interested in life. One sees much the same in James' film, even from a man who could not speak without the aid of a computer. It is not merely his surgically frozen smile that gave Ebert such grace in his final years. Amid setbacks that would have sent many into self-pitying reclusiveness—there is a brutal scene in which Ebert attempts to achieve suction in the gaping hole in his neck—he remained more engaged than ever. Much of the film is a motley array of talking heads, whether young filmmakers Ebert helped, Siskel's widow or a genuinely choked-up Martin Scorsese (talking about himself, of course). But it's in the scenes between Ebert and his wife, Chaz, where the film finds its center. Life Itself is, more than anything, a very loving document of a man who was loved.
SEE IT: Life Itself is rated R. It opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.