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Roger Ebert documentary ‘Life Itself’ is messy but effective

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Life Itself, directed by Steve James, is based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name.
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Three stars

Life Itself Directed by Steve James. Rated R. Available on Video on Demand.

It’s not surprising that film critics have been giving rave reviews to a documentary about a film critic, but if any reviewer ever deserved to have a documentary made about his life, it’s Roger Ebert. Life Itself is based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, and it follows his career from his college days up to his 2013 death, cramming a lot of material into its two-hour running time. Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) is a longtime Ebert associate, and Ebert allowed him remarkable access to what turned out to be the critic’s final months, as the cancer he struggled with for years finally overtook him.

Those scenes of Ebert’s deteriorating health can be tough to watch, but James balances them with a look at his long and vibrant career, especially his years as co-host of TV show Siskel & Ebert with fellow critic Gene Siskel. James jumps around a little too much in his efforts to make a case for Ebert as a pop-culture figure, a public intellectual and a remarkable human being, and while the love for Ebert from his colleagues, friends and family comes through, his importance as a writer and thinker is less apparent. For critics, Ebert’s greatness is a given, but Life Itself doesn’t do enough to reach beyond that.

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