Monday, April 26, 2010

Movies: You Don't Know Jack

If there's one role Al Pacino has down pat, it's the sympathetic fanatic. Whether he's blowing people away as a coked-up Tony Montana or railing against God in "The Devil's Advocate," Pacino has a knack for making the audience like someone who is obsessed to the point of lunacy. His latest assignment is Dr. Jack Kevorkian in HBO's new biopic, "You Don't Know Jack":

The film, directed by Barry Levinson, gives America's most famous "active euthanasia" advocate a relatively evenhanded treatment. At no time is Kevorkian accorded the more sinister or cynical motives his detractors pin on him. Instead, Pacino plays him as an outspoken iconoclast who wants suffering people to be able to choose a safe and painless physician-assisted suicide.

At the same time, the viewer is treated to Kevorkian's relentless provocation of the government and sometimes unhinged worldview (he famously encases one patient in a plastic tent so he can reuse the carbon monoxide - the resulting spectacle is ghoulish, which is completely lost on Kevorkian). There is a sense of inevitability as Kevorkian's allies start to drift away from him as his crusade grows more and more desperate.

Pacino is helped along by first-rate production values and a star-studded cast. John Goodman plays his assistant, Neal Nicol, while Susan Sarandon plays Janet Good, a Hemlock Society member who becomes Pacino's closest philosophical mate. The show is practically stolen, however, by a gleeful Danny Huston (as high-profile lawyer/politician Geoffrey Fieger) and a frumpy Brenda Vaccaro (as Kevorkian's supportive sister).

If there's a downside to Levinson's straightforward direction, it's that the whole thing almost plays like a documentary. The filmmaking lacks the imagination of some other notable HBO productions; though I appreciate when a director tries to tell more by doing less, it's a little too spare to be memorable. Still, it's worth a look, if only to see Al Pacino deliver his usual acerbic rants.

Rating: 6/10


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