April 21, 2010 / 11:57 PM / 9 years ago

We still don't know Jack, despite Pacino's efforts

Assisted suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian poses with actor Al Pacino (R), who plays Kevorkian in the TV film "You Don't Know Jack", during the film's premiere in New York April 14, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - How a person feels about Dr. Jack Kevorkian dovetails neatly with personal opinions over end-of-life choices: Either he’s a monster or ahead of his time.

Kevorkian always has been clear that he’s on a mission to let individuals decide when they’re ready to check out. In “You Don’t Know Jack,” HBO’s new film about the doctor’s successes (and one big failure) in making suicide an option for the terminally ill, the position of filmmaker Barry Levinson also is clear: the man may be dotty, but he’s on to something. The 130-minute film premieres Sunday.

Humanizing Kevorkian requires a bit of costume drama, but Al Pacino (Kevorkian) and Susan Sarandon (the head of the local Hemlock Society, later one of his patients) are up to the task along with some clever hair work and oversized glasses.

Levinson’s tale covers the 130 patients Kevorkian helped meet their maker and the legal battles he fought and won thanks to rabble-rousing lawyer Geoffrey Fieger (Danny Huston with a terrible, if accurate, hairdo). The doc has his own sense of drama, refusing to eat while incarcerated, then storming out of court decrying “this fusion of religious dogma and medicine.”

Pacino disappears into the hunch and Michigan accent and fashions an introverted man who is nonetheless propelled by his passion; watching him move forward without regret or fear is astonishing.

But the film skims over the bigger questions — for example, who gets to decide when someone deserves their own self-determination? At one point, two patients are told they’re simply not close enough to death to qualify, and the script never explores what Kevorkian thinks about the practical considerations of self-euthanasia.

Instead, we’re like Sarandon’s Janet Good, begging from our deathbeds for Jack to tell us something about himself and arriving at the end of things without any greater understanding than we had at the start.

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