Any movie that celebrates the life and career of Roger Ebert, and does it as well as Life Itself, isn’t going to get an objective write-up from me. It’s an authorized documentary, but that doesn’t limit its ability to dig below the surface. Ebert’s alcoholism is well documented, as is the criticism that he was unable to appropriately review substandard work by some of his famous friends.

What comes through most, though, is Ebert’s love of movies, the depth of his film knowledge and the relationships he had with the people who loved him. His relationship with Gene Siskel, his TV partner and comic foil, gets a thorough exploration; it seems that as much as they cared for each other, there was still love-hate contention at the center of their partnership, and director Steve James doesn’t shy away from letting the interviewees comment on how big Ebert’s ego was.

If you took the defining characteristics of today’s best critics—AO Scott is delightfully sharp; Manohla Dargis is refreshingly fearless; Anthony Lane has beautiful wit—and the writing skill of the late Pauline Kael, you’d have Roger Ebert. Plus, he had the balls to publish a book called I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. He was great. Most of us never will be. Life Itself is a wonderful tribute to a wonderful talent.

Directed by Steve James
With Roger Ebert
CCA Cinematheque
120 min.