Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Life Itself (2014) ****

How do you write about a movie about a guy whose life was spent writing about movies? In this case, you do it with gratitude for a film that beautifully and sometimes heartbreakingly celebrates one of America's most beloved writers. “Life Itself,” based on film critic Roger Ebert's memoir of the same name, is Ebert's life story, focusing on his career as a film critic and on his end-of-life struggle with throat cancer. Given that Ebert essentially wrote it, this is an impressively warts-and-all biopic. The audience is not spared Ebert's history of alcoholism, his legendary petulance with his frenemy Gene Siskel, nor the gruesome facial disfigurement of his cancer surgeries.

Almost everyone is familiar with Roger Ebert's name, but if you have never read his movie reviews, you should do yourself a favor and check out his website. ( Ebert once said that “movies are a machine for generating empathy.” By this he referred to the process of sharing human stories, of seeing not just the consequences of characters' actions, but also their struggles and motivations, of seeing the humanity of the villain and the frailty of the hero. A good movie doesn't just lull us with sex and violence, it helps give us the language to understand ourselves and each other; it generates empathy. All art is designed to do this, but I think film may be the most accessible to the masses of people, and thus it has the greatest overall potential to increase the amount of empathy in the world.

Ebert certainly believed this, and thus his writing, while always intelligent and literate, was essentially populist. He didn't talk down to his readers, but he wrote with an understanding that the movies and his reviews of them were available to a wide audience, and he attempted to consider the tastes of his entire audience in his reviews. “Life Itself” shows a clip from “Sneak Previews” in which Siskel and Ebert argue about the movie “Benji the Hunted.” Siskel hated the trite movie, but Ebert defended it, pointing out that it was aimed at children and should be evaluated in that light. That belief informed all of his reviews.

At a full two hours, “Life Itself” may be just slightly longer than it needs to be, but I only wound up feeling restless at one point, and that quickly faded. Audiences should also be prepared to see the grim results of Mr. Ebert's throat surgeries, which finally left him without a lower jawbone and with no connection between his mouth and his throat. Despite that, his face is still surprisingly expressive, his eyes still sparkle, and his warmth still shines through.

If I came away from “Life Itself”with a warm, fuzzy feeling about Roger Ebert's life, it isn't because of all he accomplished as a film writer. It's owing to the dignity and optimism with which he and his family are shown facing his death. I suppose we should keep in mind that Ebert had some creative control here, so we are seeing him as he wanted to be seen. Nonetheless, having read his movie reviews for years, I know that the humor and empathy are real. Roger Ebert was a man who loved movies and loved people, and loved helping people enjoy movies.

4 stars out of 5

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