Monday, May 3, 2010

TV Movie Review: You Don't Know Jack

You Don’t Know Jack ****
Directed by:
Barry Levinson
Written By: Adam Mazer.
Starring: Al Pacino (Dr. Jack Kevorkian), Danny Huston (Geoffrey Fieger), Susan Sarandon (Janet Good), John Goodman (Neal Nicol), Brenda Vaccaro (Margo Janus), Eric Lange (John Skrzynski), James Urbaniak (Jack Lessenberry), Danielle McKee (Dorothy Lessenberry).

There are many actors of Al Pacino’s age and stature who have simply grown bored and unambitious with their choices – Robert DeNiro and Gene Hackman come to mind. But Pacino has not yet given up – he seems to still hunger for great roles, and working with great directors, and is willing to go outside the normal channels to find these projects for himself. Yes, in the last decade Pacino has made some bad choices, but he has also made some great ones, and for the second time this decade he has gone to HBO (the first being his brilliant performance as Roy Cohn in Mike Nichols Angels in America) to find a role worthy of his talent. As Dr. Jack Kevorkian in Barry Levinson’s new film You Don’t Know Jack, Pacino is given one of the best roles of his late period – and he doesn’t let the opportunity pass.

Everyone knows who Jack Kevorkian is. The infamous “Dr. Death” helped over 130 terminally ill patients commit suicide in the 1990s. He had his medical license revoked and went on trail numerous times – being acquitted at each of them until his final one – and became the face and voice of the assisted suicide movement. To some he was a godsend, helping their loved ones end their suffering, but to others he was little more than one of the prolific serial killers of all time. The new HBO film You Don’t Know Jack looks behind the headlines at the man who felt driven to do what he did.

Kevorkian is not the most charming, charismatic or cheerful spokesperson that the Right to Die movement could have had. What he was, was the only doctor willing to do what he believed in, which was to help people end their suffering. When he first starts with his “suicide machine”, he knows that they will probably come after him and try and put him in jail for it, and he doesn’t care. He had already retired from his career as a pathologist, he never married, he has no kids, and other than his sister Margo (Brenda Vaccaro), he has no family. He doesn’t even have that much money – what the hell are they going to take away from him, other than his freedom, and he doesn’t care about that. Most of his family died in the Armenian Genocide, and then when he came to America, he had to watch his mother die a slow, painful death. He didn’t just do it in spite of the fact he knew that they would come after him – he did it precisely because he knew they would. His downfall would be because of this hubris – when he pushed things too far, believing himself to be invincible, and eventually forcing the prosecutors, who had long since stopped trying to convict him of anything, to go after him with everything they had.

Pacino carries the movie with his amazing performance. He confronts Kevorkian, with all his contradictions, his ego and his humanity, and creates one of the most memorable characters of the year out of him. It is easy to watch the film and not like Kevorkian very much, but you have to admire his moxie and commitment – not many people would be willing to do what he did knowing the potential consequences. Near the end of the movie, when it becomes clear that Kevorkian is in way over his head in his final trial – where, for the first time, he actually injected the patient himself, instead of letting them control the suicide machine, and he decides to represent himself, you cannot help but feel sorry for the poor bastard. By then, everyone except Kevorkian knows that he is screwed, but he keeps right on trying anyway.

But Pacino is not the only good performance in the film. Danny Huston is excellent as his longtime lawyer, who takes all of his cases pro bono – not out of kindness, but because he knows it will be a great way to make a name for himself, and he does. And yet, even you even like Huston, who does come to genuinely care about Kevorkian, and becomes increasingly frustrated during that final trial when he is kept on the outside. Susan Sarandon is quite good as well as a Right to Die advocate who comes to befriend Kevorkian – but will later need his services. John Goodman gives the type of performance he always does – that is supplying great support for the leads – never flashy, but always wonderful. Best of all is Brenda Vaccaro, given perhaps the best role of her career as Marjo, Kevorkian’s sister, and she carries her part well. While everyone else in the film likes Kevorkian, or at least what he stands for and what he can do for their cause, she is the only one who genuinely loves him – and stands by him no matter what happens. The supporting players who play Kevorkian’s “patients” and their families all feel genuine.

The film was directed by Barry Levinson – Oscar winner for Rain Man, who in the past few years has struggled to make a decent theatrical movie – failing with titles like Envy, Man of the Year and What Just Happened? Here though, he does a great job of staying out of the way of the story, and simply letting it unfold around us. He does some wonderful things with the “videos” the patients make, but generally he stays in the background – which is how it should work with this type of TV movie.

I am sure that the people who are opposed to Kevorkian and his views will not be happy with the film. It is rather one sided in its view, and doesn’t give much time or space for the arguments against assisted suicide, while it spends a lot of time arguing for it. Since I agree with assisted suicide (it seems to be that I have no right to tell people who are in pain and want to end their lives with dignity that they can’t), it didn’t bother me very much. Besides, the film does not paint Kevorkian as a saint or angel of mercy. It looks at him, flaws and all, and asks you to judge what he did based on his actions. Reasonable people can disagree on an issue as complex and fraught with legal and moral issues as assisted suicide. Hopefully everyone can watch You Don’t Know Jack with an open mind.

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