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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

HBO Does It Again

This is rather off-topic for Weird Movie Village, but I have to express my admiration for the new telefilm You Don't Know Jack, which premiered on HBO last Saturday. The network has long been justifiably famous for its superb made-for-TV movies and documentaries (like last year's Grey Gardens), and Jack carries on that proud tradition.

What an appropriate title. Everyone knows about "Dr. Death," of course, but did you know he painted bizarre and confrontational works of art? That he went on hunger strikes when was incarcerated (except for the latest eight-year stretch)? That he walked into the courtroom dressed in 17th-century garb and locked in a pillory to dramatize how antiquated the laws were that prosecutors were attempting to use against him?

Kevorkian remains one of America's most controversial figures, and Barry Levinson's film doesn't attempt to make him warm and cuddly. As a matter of fact, Al Pacino's brilliant portrayal of him as a prickly, asocial retired pathologist makes it difficult to figure out how you want to accept this guy. But what it did do is convince me that a terminally ill patient's right to die is just that—his/her right.

Kevorkian watched helplessly as his own mother suffered through an unnecessarily drawn-out and agonizing death, and he was angry at seeing other terminally ill people forced to have their lives drag on by artificial means, so he came out of retirement to offer what he thought was a sensible solution: a painless way to end it all.

Supported by his sister, Margo (a wonderful Brenda Vaccaro) and best pal Neal (the always welcome John Goodman), he sets out to ply his trade. There's no fee for his services, of course. "How could you charge for this?" he reasons. And he's meticulous in making sure that he has solid documentation of his patients' desires beforehand. He videotapes them declaring their intentions, has them sign the necessary forms, and even makes them pull the string themselves to release the lethal dose. Always wanting to challenge the system, he allows 60 Minutes to air a videotape of himself performing a euthanization, resulting in his conviction and imprisonment.

The authentic videotape interviews used in the film are heartbreaking and agonizingly intimate. A young man who'd been paralyzed in an accident had doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, and now he wants Kevorkian to finish the job. However, since he's not terminally ill, the doctor must refuse his request. Kevorkian also determines that an elderly woman with early symptoms of Parkinson's hasn't reached the terminal stage yet, and he tells her to wait. She responds with a sad, tiny "Okay." And it's clear when watching the tapes of the patients he did accept that they really didn't have anything left. In constant pain, incapacitated, and a physical and emotional drain on their families, they had only one option available.

That's the judgment every viewer must make when watching Jack. I found myself siding strongly with the doctor's efforts, but others may disagree, and to its credit the film doesn't attempt to manipulate you one way or the other.

As indicated by the punny title, Jack is not without humor. The way Kevorkian views life and the comments he makes are wryly amusing. His relationship with Margo is vivid and realistic. She's a pragmatist, and she unquestioningly supports him in his efforts, but they still brawl. And there's a memorable sequence at an art gallery where his work is being exhibited. At first the attendees are horrified by the images they see, but he noodles his way through the crowd, explaining his inspiration for the paintings, and they start making offers!

Levinson's direction is some of his best work: straightforward and dynamic, without any unnecessary flourish. Adam Mazer's screenplay is compelling and moves the plot along briskly. Danny Huston is all alligator grins as the attorney Geoffrey Feiger, who fights Kevorkian's numerous legal battles without accepting a penny, only to reveal his craven political ambitions and become one of his biggest foes. As Janet Good, the head of the local Hemlock Society, Susan Sarandon is fine as a believer who helps Kevorkian in his crusade, only to become one of his patients when she is stricken with pancreatic cancer. And as I said earlier, Vaccaro is just terrific. Goodman's comfortable bearlike presence gives Neal a nice, humorous dimension.

But it's Pacino who really makes it happen. Obviously dedicated to this piece, he doesn't merely do an impersonation of Kevorkian, he brings his own interpretation of the man to life. So convincing is he, in fact, that when Margo makes reference to their Armenian heritage, I thought, "Damn! He does look Armenian!" All I can say is that Mr. Pacino better make room on the shelf for his second Emmy (the first was for his portrayal of Roy Cohn in Angels in America—also on HBO, of course).

Kevorkian himself appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher last Friday and said that he was treated very nicely while he was serving his sentence and that a lot of the prisoners agreed with what he was trying to do. The worst part of incarceration, he said, was the snoring. That really sums the guy up.

If you haven't seen You Don't Know Jack yet, be sure to check it out. Regardless of your stand on the issue, you'll be treating yourself to a fine piece of filmmaking and a truly incendiary performance.

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