The reports of Dick Johnson’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The reviews of the documentary on his death have been greatly overrated.
I have always loved movies. I’m guessing many people say that, but it’s the kind of love where you would seek out obscure films when you were a kid, because you read an article about a director. You don’t just like the blockbusters.
It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I realized documentaries could be just as entertaining. But the critic in me crept out. That’s not just because that was the age I started doing my first reviews over 25 years ago. Flaws would just jump out at me. So while I enjoyed the first few things Michael Moore did, I started to dislike things he did in his documentaries. And a piece like Blackfish or An Inconvenient Truth, just had so much rubbish, I wasn’t sure how anyone could like those.
Yet there have been documentaries that made my Top 10 movie list for the year. Spellbound, Crazy Love, Man on Wire, Murderball, Hoop Dreams, Three Identical Strangers, Anvil, Searching for Sugarman, Muscle Shoals, 20 Feet From Stardom, and Boys State this year, all come to mind.
So in one of my critics’ groups, someone mentioned loving Dick Johnson is Dead, which came out earlier this year. Certainly a provocative title, but when people recommend movies or TV shows to me, well…it always seems to be 50/50 on whether I like them. I checked with Rotten Tomatoes and it had a 100% rating from critics, which was all I needed to give it a view.
The wife and I logged into our Netflix account and immediately, we started looking at each other in astonishment. What we were witnessing was a bit bizarre.
Kirsten Johnson is the camera person who gave us, well…Cameraperson. That’s an autobiographical portrait of her career as a documentary cinematographer (she’s worked on Michael Moore films, among many others). That documentary showed a lot of footage that didn’t make the cut of other films. It also had shots of her mom and kids. In her new documentary, she laments the lack of video footage she has of her mom, who died from Alzheimer’s. So she decides to compile a lot of footage of her dad, Richard C. Johnson. But hey, she’s a filmmaker, so why not spruce things up a bit and film various scenarios where he’s dying. And this guy, a psychiatrist in his ‘80s, is game.
I’ve joked before that if someone has a terminal illness, they should go to Hollywood and become a stuntman. Why not have Tom Cruise throw you off a building into an air cushion. If something goes wrong, well…you were going to die in 4 or 5 months anyway. Now you’re at least in a blockbuster film. Of course I was just joking. But that made me think Dick Johnson did have a terminal illness. Nope. Kirsten is just worried about his dementia which…seems bad in some scenes, but really isn’t, considering his age. She milks the situation, so we get a scene of him not finding the right apartment; or being confused when he’s left at a stranger’s house while all the kids go trick or treating, and forgetting where he was or why (would it have killed her to have left a note for him explaining the situation?). Yet when there’s an 86th birthday party for him, and the grandkids make him an atrocious (but delicious) looking chocolate cake, he’s with it enough to say how it’s the best looking cake he’s ever seen, and how it’s the most delicious. Even when he senses one of the kids isn’t proud of the creation, he picks up on that and keeps praising them. Basically, Kirsten is a genius. She wants to use a studio’s budget to have some fun with her dad. I get that. And we do see that many times it’s a nice bonding experience for them. Yet there’s one time that he is doing a death scene he doesn’t like and is uncomfortable. That bothers me a bit, as she keeps plowing through with it, even after he’s telling her how much he doesn’t like it. Also, just as it bothered me that Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” only gives us around five…for this movie to be more entertaining, I would have rather seen 20 various ways for him to die. Instead she does about five, and instead devotes time to weird dream sequences with elaborate set designs. They’re awful and corny.
This all just rubbed me and my wife the wrong way. It felt exploitative and unnecessary. It also gets a bit repetitive. And don’t even get me started with the misdirections Kirsten uses, which manipulate your emotions in ways that are odd and frustrating. Now, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t crying at the end, or that a few of the scenes didn’t crack me up. Who wouldn’t chuckle seeing an air conditioning unit fall from a building to bop a dude on the head?
It’s surprising how dull a lot of this was, though. It appears Dick had an interesting life. We even see him thoughtfully talk to a person who is putting up shelves for him, who had lost his mom. That made me wish that Kirsten showed her and dad talking to various people about losing their parents, or showing us more stories and home movies of his life.
It’s touching to watch him struggle with having to give up his car, or hearing him talk about his deceased wife. And I’m guessing most people will eat this all up. Perhaps it will help folks who have lost a parent, or will make them realize they should appreciate the time they have left with their parents.
Kirsten’s heart was in the right place, but this all comes off as self-serving. Some of the narration was unnecessary, too. We can see exactly what she’s telling us. She also tries too hard to be cutesy, and that’s not necessary with elderly folks we alright like. And we do like Dick. [side note: that’s a line I’ve never written in a review before]
The Harold and Maude vibe will have audiences loving it, so although it wasn’t for my wife and I, I think most people are going to love it and should see it.
2 stars out of 5.