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You Don’t Know Jack (DVD Review)

8 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Not rated.
Stars Al Pacino, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Danny Huston.

Though the content and a couple revelatory performances battle it out as the main attention-getters in another of HBO’s welcomely grown-up TV movies, they don’t obscure the narrative skills that director Barry Levinson and Emmy-awarded writer Adam Mazar bring to the ever controversial story of Jack Kervorkian — the Michigan pathologist who became a dedicated and compassionate but also imperfect symbol of the right-to-die movement that so many support. (And others don’t.)

Still, even if you go into this film having seen the promotional still photos of lead Al Pacino, it’s difficult to suppress a gulp over the degree to which the actor, abetted by what must have been an extraordinary makeup crew, turn him into a replica of the real item. This is especially true when you watch the 10-minute featurette that’s included on the DVD, which has Pacino sporting his standard recent look: a kind of 360-degree mustache/beard combination and, above that, a truly serious head of hair for a guy pushing 70.

In Pacino’s case, the element of surprise is at least somewhat lessened due to all the ink (and accompanying art) he got when the movie aired this past April on its way to a best-actor Emmy win to go along with Mazar’s for the screenplay. No one, though, prepared me for how much the same makeup geniuses had transformed the already reliably chameleonic Danny Huston into an almost equally remarkable representation of Kervorkian lawyer Jeffrey Fieger — a subsequently failed Michigan gubernatorial candidate and consummate legal showboat (the latter a characterization with which Fieger probably agrees).

As with its central subject, the movie doesn’t always present Fieger in the most flattering light, though both he and especially Kervorkian appear to be satisfied with the final rendering, given their appearances on the featurette. Fieger says he could easily handle prosecutors, protestors and the press — but not his own client. Kervorkian, who was released from prison in 2007 after serving eight years for second-degree murder, had eccentric people skills (to put it kindly), was politically tone-deaf in terms of ruffling medical-profession feathers and tended to live in his own rarefied world of music and painting. He notes in the featurette that he didn’t even understand the double entendre nature of this movie’s clever title.

Offering solid support here in un- or less-showy roles are Susan Sarandon as Hemlock Society ally Janet Good; Brenda Vaccaro as Kervorkian’s cantankerous-with-a-cause sister Margo; and John Goodman as longtime procedural assistant Neal Nicol, who’s portrayed here as having had a falling-out of at least some duration with Kervorkian over what he regarded as a degradation of the doctor’s standards. The story’s turning point comes when Kervorkian pulls the plug on one dying patient himself instead of letting the patient do it (which had been the standard procedure).

At this point, the legal jackals who pursued Kervorkian in the first place (with a humiliating lack of success) had him where they wanted him. And if the movie is even-handed in showing a lot of Kervorkian’s flaws, it’s also upfront about asserting that the doctor’s prosecution was often rife with the stench of the prosecutors’ personal agendas. It also makes clear that Kervorkian acted out of an indisputably sincere desire to alleviate human suffering and opines that the courts donned an especially light-filtering pair of blinders when it left human suffering and the rights of patients out of its judicial equations. This is how socio-political movements get fresh life.

Jack got 15 Emmy nominations total and is one of the high points in the maddeningly uneven career of Levinson, who once pulled off the magnificent 3-fer streak of Rain Man, Avalon and Bugsy — only to follow them up with Toys and Jimmy Hollywood. What HBO did for no-longer-young directors — say, Mike Nichols (Angels in America and Wit) and Paul Mazursky (Winchell) — it has done again.

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