TV Review: HBO’s ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ With Al Pacino, Susan Sarandon

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CHICAGO – The great Al Pacino has struggled over the last few years, appearing in total junk like “88 Minutes” and “Righteous Kill,” but one is immediately reminded of his incredible skill mere minutes into the HBO telefilm “You Don’t Know Jack,” debuting April 24th, 2010. Overall, the dramatization of the controversy surrounding Jack Kevorkian and his beliefs about assisted suicide from Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson works because of its great cast but doesn’t quite connect like the best HBO productions of recent years.

HollywoodChicago.com Television Rating: 3.5/5.0
Television Rating: 3.5/5.0

In the opening scenes of “You Don’t Know Jack,” Dr. Jack Kevorkian (Pacino) is playing poker with his buddies and arguing the merits of assisted suicide while a friend notes that most people who know him call him a nut. The focus of the film is clear. Don’t expect much background on Kevorkian or how he got to the point where he would become involved in one of the biggest medical controversies of his era. The film makes it seem like he was always there. Minutes later, Jack hears about a man being kept alive against his wishes and he’s off to work. This is clearly going to be a focused story on what Kevorkian did late in life, not what got him to that point.

You Don't Know Jack.
You Don’t Know Jack.
Photo credit: Skip Bolen/HBO

It’s not long before Kevorkian is filming testimonials from people who need his help to end their very painful lives. “Who cares what people think, it’s what my patient feels.” Levinson’s film continues through a variety of assisted suicides, dealing with legal issues involving the controversial Geoffrey Feiger (Danny Huston), getting assistance from friends (John Goodman) and family (Brenda Vaccaro), and uniting with a Hemlock Society head played with more subtlety than she’s found on the big screen in recent years by Susan Sarandon.

You Don't Know Jack.
You Don’t Know Jack.
Photo credit: Skip Bolen/HBO

Perhaps it was a subject too close to home considering I grew up in Michigan, where Dr. Kevorkian’s drama took place, but I vividly remember heated arguments about what Jack Kevorkian was doing with patients and how he was being treated by the legal system from when I was younger. And yet “heated” is a word that I would never use to describe “You Don’t Know Jack”. This is a movie that, like a lot of Levinson’s recent work, is lacking the energy that could turn it from a recreation of history to something that recaptures a moment in it. It’s a masterfully produced recreation, but Adam Mazer’s very episodic script never transcends the history lesson to truly transport viewers back to Kevorkian’s controversy or make it relevant for today.

The script for “You Don’t Know Jack” seems almost afraid to demonize or idolize Kevorkian and, therefore, walks a safe middle line that leaves it feeling somewhat inert. The movie clearly sides with Kevorkian, painting most of his opponents as raving lunatics and repeating Kevorkian mantras like “we’re not criminals,” but it does so almost in the same way that Kevorkian passively let his patients pull the actual switch and isn’t quite forceful enough in its stance. Kevorkian himself remains something of a mystery. The title of the film might lead some viewers to think they WILL know Jack by the time the credits roll, but it almost feels more like the creative model for the team behind it - you don’t know him and you never will.

All script issues aside, Pacino is simply mesmerizing, wonderfully capturing a man who was as much of a lunatic as he was a savior. Completely free from the debate over what he was doing, Kevorkian was an undeniably eccentric dude and Pacino nails every mannerism without chewing the scenery that he so easily could have done. Al sometimes overplays his hand but he subtly gets under the skin of Jack Kevorkian, making him fully three-dimensional without over-acting. It’s his best work in years. One gets the impression that he’s the only one who truly knows Jack.

You Don't Know Jack.
You Don’t Know Jack.
Photo credit: Skip Bolen/HBO

And it’s Pacino’s remarkable performance that carries the viewer through the piece. Dr. Kevorkian knew he was in the right; legal issues or complaints of playing God didn’t matter. Pacino gets that drive, portraying a man who seemingly used every waking minute to alleviate suffering. The actor never falters and he’s joined by great supporting turns by Sarandon, Goodman, Huston, and Vaccaro. You can expect “You Don’t Know Jack” to be a major player at the next Emmy awards.

Ultimately, there’s little wrong with “You Don’t Know Jack” and the performances alone make it worth seeing, but it’s a good film that never quite rises to great. Whatever you may think about him, Dr. Jack Kevorkian took a stance that he would never be swayed from and it would have been nice if the film about him figured out a way to know why. Perhaps there is no reason why. Perhaps some men simply take a stance and stick to it. But there are deep moral questions about Kevorkian that the film barely addresses. By the time the movie ends as a courtroom drama, it seems more like a very well-done weekly legal show than the emotionally resonant piece it could have been.

“You Don’t Know Jack” premieres on HBO on Saturday, April 24th, 2010 at 8pm CST. It stars Al Pacino, Brenda Vaccaro, John Goodman, Danny Huston, and Susan Sarandon. It was written by Adam Mazer and directed by Barry Levinson.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

By BRIAN TALLERICO
Content Director
HollywoodChicago.com
brian@hollywoodchicago.com

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