Roger Ebert in "Life Itself."

Roger Ebert in "Life Itself." Credit: Magnolia Pictures / Kevin Horan

"Life Itself," Steve James' documentary about Roger Ebert, is based on the late film critic's memoir of the same name. Near the end, James poses an obvious question to Ebert via email: Why did he choose that title?

It's one of the few questions left unanswered in this loving but unvarnished look at the most famous and influential film critic in history. "Life Itself" covers Ebert's career and personal life from his early days at the Chicago Sun-Times to his popular television shows with Gene Siskel to his final years, when even cancer -- which took his lower jaw and left him unable to speak -- couldn't stop his flow of reviews, blog posts and tweets.

It's illuminating to hear about Ebert's precocious childhood, his stint editing his college newspaper (the legendary Daily Illini) and the drinking that led him to Alcoholics Anonymous, where he met his future wife, Chaz, whose interviews here are candid and emotional. Other testimony comes from fledgling director Ramin Bahrani ("Man Push Cart"), whom Ebert championed, and from Martin Scorsese, who felt Ebert's occasional sting but still helped produce this movie. Highly perched critics such as A.O. Scott, of The New York Times, explain why Ebert's combination of plain-vanilla writing and encyclopedic knowledge made him so influential, beloved and feared.

But the fun really starts when Siskel enters the picture and we see first hand -- in a series of hilariously hostile outtakes -- that their on-camera combat was no act. Siskel, often considered the Garfunkel to Ebert's Simon, was clearly just as competitive and bullheaded as his partner. Still, Ebert admits (via Stephen Stanton's narration), "There were times when I never felt closer to another man."

And what about that title, "Life Itself"? Ebert, so near death that he could barely type, replies only, "I can't." It's a heartbreaking moment, but this movie is never maudlin or sentimental. It shows us a man who, whatever his flaws, seemed to live his life in exactly the right way.

PLOT A documentary on the life and career of the late, great film critic Roger Ebert.



BOTTOM LINE Steve James' film is somewhat like its subject: modest, straightforward and more than a little inspiring.

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