Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski knows Jack. Jill, too.
"It's not living, you know."—Jack Kevorkian
More than a decade after the height of his fame, the champion of physician-assisted suicide, Dr. Death, gets to see Al Pacino (Angels in America) play him in the HBO film You Don't Know Jack. Despite Kevorkian's sensational moniker and quirky persona—the latter of which HBO pushes heavily in the film's advertising—his story is wrought with emotion. However cheerful HBO wants to make You Don't Know Jack look, its main attraction is its death scenes. Here, family members say tearful farewells to those who are choosing when and how to die, and Jack provides the means. If you've got the fortitude to endure them, you'll take a lot away from these scenes, and from the film itself.
Facts of the Case
Weary of seeing patients suffer through agonizing and drawn-out hospital deaths, Dr. Jack Kevorkian sets about helping them die on their own terms. Using his medical know-how, the help of some faithful sidekicks, and a fair share of improvisation, he sets terminal and suffering patients up with lethal I.V.s or gas and guides them through the process of killing themselves. Those faithful sidekicks include Geoffery (Danny Huston, 30 Days of Night), a lawyer who keeps Jack out of jail; Margo (Brenda Vaccaro, Midnight Cowboy), his ever-patient sister; Neal (John Goodman, Roseanne), a long-time buddy and partner/accomplice; and Janet (Susan Sarandon, The Hunger), a right-to-die activist with a sharp wit and a level head.
While the idea he devotes his life to—that individuals should have as much control as possible over their own deaths—gets a lot of folks' hackles up in the U.S., Jack Kevorkian exudes the feeling of being quintessentially American. This son of Armenian immigrants spends his days in the rental apartments and chain diners of Detroit, plays poker with his buddies for nickels and dimes, and rigs up his "Thanatron" I.V. machine with scraps of metal bought at a flea market. And yet, he calmly sets himself to tasks that are monumental in scope or personal significance: legalizing physician-assisted suicide across the U.S. or helping one of the people closest to him die. He seems to embody our national character with his blend of can-do gumption, moral righteousness, and penchant for the sensational—fascinating undertones for his story that are skillfully conveyed in You Don't Know Jack.
Pacino seems to really get these aspects of Jack Kevorkian, and his performance is overtly the centerpiece of the film. Wisely, he refrains from turning Jack's eccentricity into showy humor—though one gets the sense that HBO would like him to—and instead thickens the character's compassion. Though he occasionally behaves with less sensitivity to the dying than his colleagues would like, these instances seem to be anomalies stemming from his commitment to the larger cause and there are many scenes in which Jack attends to the emotional needs of his patients with care. Equally impressive is the way Pacino maintains a quiet despair underneath Jack's bravado. It is the kind of despair that comes from the deeply rooted conviction that he is in the right and the painful awareness that he can't win. The thought of all those who, in his view, will suffer needlessly because of the ignorance of his political opponents weighs heavily on Jack, and Pacino communicates that weight beautifully.
The supporting cast adds much to the film, as well, though their screen time is skewed too much toward the lawyer Geoffery, who is the least captivating of the bunch. I would have preferred to see more of Janet, who is a treat to watch in both comic and tragic scenes, thanks to the unfailingly excellent Susan Sarandon. Sarandon delivers the funniest line of the film (which, we find out in the featurette, was her own ad-lib) when she points at one of Jack's paintings and asks, simply, "Is that Santa Claus stepping on a baby?"
Regardless of excellent performances or wry undertones about American identity, this is a film about an extremely divisive moral and political issue and, in the end, your position in debates about the right to die will probably determine whether you like You Don't Know Jack more than any other factor. Director Barry Levinson and screenwriter Adam Mazer smartly resist the option of playing it safe by giving equal attention and respect to both positions in this controversy, which would have resulted in a very muddled and underwhelming film, I'd wager. Instead, they seem to take a bolder position that is more or less on Jack's side, conceding that he may not be a great spokesman for this cause but that the cause itself has great merit. It's a brave choice on their part, and one that will likely alienate any viewers who are firmly against physician-assisted suicide. It is equally likely that You Don't Know Jack will give those on the fence or unfamiliar with the debate a new perspective on how America approaches end of life issues.
In terms of the DVD itself, You Don't Know Jack has a perfectly adequate technical presentation. It looks good—sharp and clear, with appropriately muted colors—but not too good, of course, since it is mostly immersed in the depressing aesthetics of working class, semi-suburban neighborhoods in a chilly Midwestern city. It's a relatively quiet film without showy sound work, but everything sounds clear and I did notice some nice directional effects. There is one lonely special feature on the disc, which is interesting but not enough to stand alone. It's a ten-minute featurette with the standard interview bits from cast members, but also interviews with the real Jack Kevorkian, Neal Nicol, and Geoffery Fieger. Kevorkian is great fun to watch, spitting out good-natured accusations about death like, "You just go into nothingness. Big deal! You came from nothingness. Was it so bad?!" As a film that raises such important and interesting issues, a commentary track seems like a must—though perhaps the cast and crew aren't quite brave enough for that. Or perhaps HBO just got lazy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The most irritating aspect of You Don't Know Jack is HBO's attempt to sell the film as a light-hearted look at an eccentric old man. Watching the featurette, all the clips and interview snippets included seemed to be geared toward this vision of the story. I kept waiting for them to get to the meat of this ethically and emotionally volatile material, but then the featurette just ended. I can understand the motivation: however important the issue surrounding end of life care are, there is no getting around the reality that watching someone die is almost always upsetting and depressing, even when they have the agency to choose how they make their exit. That's a tough movie plot to sell, and one can't quite blame the filmmakers or HBO for some attempts to lighten the mood. But about half of the jokier moments in You Don't Know Jack feel artificial and too overt, the efforts to enliven things with sometimes-frenetic editing are misguided, and there are some perplexing music cues that have no place in the film. It's a bit sad that we can't rely on the viewing public to just deal with really important material once in a while even though it's a downer. If we could, movies like You Don't Know Jack wouldn't have to bend over backwards to seem cheerful, apologizing for being about something as unglamorous and serious as death.
The story of a fascinating man, You Don't Know Jack overcomes a few fumbled attempts at levity through a superb cast and bold screenplay. End of life care is a topic every American should think about (well, at least those Americans who plan on dying some day…), and this film is a pretty good vehicle for doing so.
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