This film has had excellent reviews from the critics but then it is a film about film critics.
Life Itself is a documentary about the life, and due to the way things worked out while it was being made, death of Roger Ebert. Ebert is widely considered one of the finest ever film journalists and is highly respected in the profession. His writing was quite often sublime, his views reasoned and his tastes, like his upbringing, were catholic. He has a star on Hollywood Boulevard and he was the first movie critic to win a Pulitzer. (This was in 1974 and only four others have done it since.) Clearly he was an inspiration for many.
The Rotten Tomatoes website, which gives films a score based on all of the reviews, has awarded it a 98% approval rate from the critics. The King’s Speech only got 94% and everyone loved that so clearly the film has its fans but what about those outside the industry?
Well, the film also has 92% from the website’s user reviews but, to be fair, these opinions are informed by the same bias. The users here are not your average members of the moviegoing public anymore, they are the bloggers; the wannabe critics. Some of their ‘comments’ even start with sentences like ‘I am a film critic and… or ‘I would not be a film critic if it were not for…’. Personally I think that if you feel the need to announce what you are then you probably aren’t.
Consider this creative jealously if you like because clearly I’d love to have my views considered on Rotten Tomatoes but being a blogger and being a film critic is not the same thing at all. Film criticism is either journalist or academic. Having an opinion, no matter how educated, and posting it online does not automatically make you a critic. It isn’t about getting paid either because I can think of a number of people who review films for major publications or radio and TV shows who I do not consider to be critics either. I like Claudia Winkleman but she’s not a film critic now is she?
Most bloggers, like me, are just people who love something and find that writing about it deepens the way they interact with it. Let’s no over state it.
All things considered then, it might be tricky to get an impartial view on this one. In my opinion, for what that’s worth, Life Itself is an interesting but fairly standard and unremarkable talking heads documentary.
There have been two film related docs in the last couple of years, The Last Projectionist and A Story of Children and Film, that have really played to my sensibilities but this did not chime with me in the same way. The problem is that it isn’t a film about a love of the movies, it is a film about a man who loved the movies. Even though it features a handful of clips it does not even begin to capture what is magical about cinema or the moviegoing experience. It is more about what it’s like to be a critic and, as I’ve suggested, there aren’t many people who can actually relate to that. Mark Kermode’s book Hatchet Job is about film criticism but it speaks about in a way that is relevant to the people that read the stuff, not the people that write it. This film does not manage this in the same way.
Life Itself works better as the portrait of a flawed but determined man, almost irrelevant of what he did for a living. Clearly he achieved great things and it is moving seeming him bravely working through his illness and subsequent disabilities. In many respects it reminded me of the excellent documentary Hawking from October last year, and there are clear parallels between these two men with sharp minds in failing bodies, but it isn’t captivating in the same way.
The mark of a great documentary feature is in how it fascinates you, irrelevant of any interest you may have had in the subject matter beforehand. For me Senna remains the benchmark for this but Life Itself has none of that film’s innovation or flare for telling its story. In the end it is just too niche.
Life Itself is in selected cinemas but I wouldn’t bother searching one out. If you are curious it is also available for download.