Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Getting to Know Jack

HBO's new film bears the curious title You Don't Know Jack. I thought it was going to be a documentary about the computer game from the 1990s and the short-lived television game show based on it. Pee Wee Herman hosted that show. It lasted six episodes. I guess HBO didn't think that was enough to craft a film around.

But my confusion aside, it's a curious title because the actual subject of the film, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the controversial physician who championed -- and continues to champion -- the right to choose to die, is probably the most well-known doctor in America during the last twenty years. We might not be pals with him, but we know Jack better than most of us know our own doctors.

With Al Pacino in the title role, we first meet Dr. Kevorkian in Detroit enduring semi-retirement, puttering about, playing cards with his friends, and experimenting with a homemade device he calls a "mercitron." His mercitron will enable even the most infirm to deliver a lethal dose of potassium chloride solution and painlessly end their suffering. Kevorkian views the practice of simply cutting off feeding tubes and allowing people to starve to death as barbaric. The problem is that the feeding tube method is legal and the mercitron is ... less so.

Aided by his sister (Brenda Vaccaro), a longtime friend (John Goodman), and a politically inclined head of the local chapter of the Hemlock Society (Susan Sarandon), Kevorkian sets out on a crusade which he sees as sparing the hopelessly ill from unnecessary suffering. The Powers That Be, particularly the lawyers in the Michigan Attorney General's office, have other opinions.

Barry Levinson's direction is at its best when we get to see Dr. Jack interacting with his small extended family and with the patients he seeks to help. Those scenes are intimate and heart wrenching and magnificently played by a stellar cast. Pacino, who has been known at times to take rather large bites out of great hunks of scenery, inhabits the title role like a comfy, ratty old sweater. He conveys the attitude of a man who firmly believes he should win out because his reasoning is sound and is baffled by anyone who doesn't fall into line with his logic.

The major flaw in the movie is that no one on the other side of the issue ever gets a serious chance to make the case. We get screaming loons with signs who bang on Dr. Jack's car. We get the petty lawyers who view Kevorkian's activities as a personal affront. But we never get anyone making the reasoned argument from the other side: that doctors actively assisting suicides, no matter how merciful, may well be overstepping a critical boundary.

Jack Kevorkian happily stepped over that boundary. By the time he was finally convicted for second-degree murder, he was jumping up and down on that boundary and daring the authorities to do anything about it. You Don't Know Jack is a worthy look at the man, but falls short of presenting the man's issue. We get to know Jack, just not what Jack was -- and is -- all about.

3 stars

Personal note: At the height of Jack Kevorkian's infamy, Dave and I were at the Second City and we wrote a little piece that got a nice reaction called "Young Dr. Kevorkian." The basic idea was that Jack was a crusading, save-them-at-any-cost idealist as a young man who was corrupted by a bitter, twisted, wheel-chair-bound mentor and turned into a diabolical killer. It was a spoof on the ridiculous extremes of the debate and on people's perceptions of doctors as saints. At least I hoped it was.

It also played as a parody of things like "Young Dr. Kildare" and "Ben Casey." Even then, our references were way too old. Dave got most of the laughs as the idealistic young doctor and then I came in doing a lousy Lionel Barrymore impression and convinced him that killing was super-cool! Al Pacino makes a fine Jack Kevorkian, but for me, Dave was definitive in the role.

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