By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood July 2, 2014 at 5:25PM
Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz enthusiastically embraced the idea of a documentary of his bestselling memoir "Life Itself," and wanted Chicago filmmaker Steve James, whose "Hoop Dreams" Ebert had discovered at Sundance 20 years ago, to direct it.
James found himself in an unusual situation as Ebert's health took a turn for the worse as he was filming, and Ebert and Chaz allowed the filmmaker access to the last weeks of Ebert's life in the hospital before he faded from view. Some of the close-ups on what was left of the critic's face and jaw are hard to take, as we watch him undergoing a rather unpleasant windpipe suction routine.
Some have suggested that we're still in the throes of grieving for a man many of us came to feel intimate with via print, television and the internet. Maybe this movie comes too soon? Ebert embraced the film and encouraged James to show him honestly. Ebert seems to have had unusual control as a subject, wanting to be as transparent as possible about the ravages of cancer and what he suffered. (This was in part a reaction to his sparring partner Gene Siskel's hiding his lethal cancer from Ebert and others.) Clearly, at the end, Ebert felt that he couldn't go on. There is a sense that we are watching scenes that could have played out differently in private, as both Ebert and Chaz try to put a brave face on things, and her family stays cheery in front of the camera.
This is my own area of discomfort. The movie worked well for the Sundance Film Festival opening night crowd, who stood and cheered at the end in a prolonged standing ovation. Critic Amy Nicholson tweeted that the movie played at her Sundance press screening "like film critic mass. A reminder of our obligation to find new talent."
Evert's other TV critic foil Richard Roeper is a rather obvious omission from the movie, which James explains as simply a matter of time--the memoir itself doesn't spend much energy on him.
What the movie does well is to show where Ebert comes from and how he was a transitional figure, at the same time an old-school ink-stained newspaperman, loyal to his town and his paper (refusing to move on to The Washington Post, which tried to lure him), yet he took to the internet like a duck to water when TV was no longer open to him. He became the new model film critic because he was engaged, populist, open-minded, versatile and flexible.
Ebert was nationally popular in part because he did not talk down to his readers. He shared his passion with them. He was not the Ivory Tower expert on high telling people what they should know and how they should think about a movie. He was, like many online movie writers today, an unabashed movie fan. He loved loving movies--although he could get angry if someone like Gene Siskel didn't share his views. Their back-and-forth banter, as fun as it was on television, was energized by their competitive rivalry, it was real--and irreplaceable. Luckily James found one snippet of off-screen outtakes that reveals how they really went after each other.
Apparently they eventually did come to find a more collegial mutual respect, and Siskel's widow Marlene is a welcome addition to the conversation. And Martin Scorsese movingly reveals how much Ebert helped to pull him out of a career funk via a Toronto Film Festival tribute. The movie's emotions are genuine. I shed a tear watching Chaz Ebert on Charlie Rose talking about her real love story. It was enviable-- and cut off far too soon.
Happily, when CNN FIlms' Vinnie Malhotra brought James in to see what he might be working on, when he mentioned "Life Itself" Malhotra eagerly wanted to back the film (partially funded by an Indiegogo campaign) in partnership with an eventual theatrical distributor (Magnolia Pictures). It's been fascinating and weird to watch how adeptly Chaz and editor-in-chief Matt Zoller Seitz have used the RogerEbert.com platform to market this Ebert doc--which yields awkward moments where Ebert seems to be giving himself a thumbs-up from the grave. I happily participated in an Ebert birthday Google Hangout.
Ebert's many fans and followers will certainly provide a core audience for the film. And as many of them are voting Academy members, James' film will likely be in this year's Oscar Doc conversation. I caution against going overboard, however, by pushing the movie toward a Best Picture consideration. That should come organically over time.