Life Itself is a messy movie about a messy man. It is more of a wake than a funeral, meaning it is a celebration of a man, not an idea. The stories that are told are thematically linked but not in any precise order, and they’re always entertaining but they aren’t always flattering. His friends call him a hero and they call him a bully and they call him a great writer and an egomaniac. In other words it's a fitting portrait of a man who said a lot of erudite things about great art over the years but only made one movie himself, the gonzo soft-porn-ish Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which he did mostly because he was into big breasts.
The Ebert you get in this movie has a lot of dualities in him. He was such a passionate lover of the cinema that he acted as a guardian angel for young talents that he respected, but he was enough of a dick that when Johnny Carson asked him what his least favorite movie of the year was he responded “Three Amigos” even though Chevvy Chase (who was one of the amigos) was sitting right behind him. He had the sort of integrity that meant he couldn't lie, which is noble in a way, but it also meant that he wasn't always going to be popular.
But the film is, indeed, a wake, because Ebert did die. Since Ebert was missing the lower half of his jaw after a botched cancer surgery he looks incredibly vulnerable in every shot that's taken near the end of his life. Then again, because his spirits were always so high and because he was so passionate about his work up till the end he always maintains a certain vitality despite his obvious frailness. The specter of death hangs over the film, but so does an ever present sense that life is worth living. The combination is heartbreaking, because it illustrates how cruel mortality is in a way that a film about a less settled person wouldn't. When you see a good person approach death with a good attitude it really strikes home how inescapable it is.
The film earns the right to the name “Life Itself” early on by talking about all of the parts of life that matter to us, like love and brotherhood and the importance of passion, but it is in these closing sections where we see Ebert nearing the grave that the film truly becomes about Life Itself. Those are the parts that are the messiest – emotionally messy, physically messy, philosophically messy – but that sort of mess is inevitable when you create a portrait of a whole life, because life can never be clean, not really.
Roger Ebert loved movies with the passion of a boy, but he wrote about them from the clear perspective of a man. There's something about that youthful utopianism and that adult pragmatism that speaks to me, because there's a part of me that wants everything I see to be great, but there's a more realistic part of me that understands that that is impossible. But then I'll find a movie like Life Itself, one which informs me about the world but also challenges me to think about myself, one that puts me in touch with something that is beautiful and terrible, and I'll remember why I love movies, and I'll get my hopes back up for more films that can touch me so deeply that I cry, even though I hate crying. There's no better tribute to a man who spent his life promoting movies than that.