by Tony Dayoub
HBO's You Don't Know Jack follows the rise and fall of "Dr. Death" in the media as he championed the cause of doctor-assisted suicide in the 1990s. It is probably director Barry Levinson's most memorable film since Wag the Dog (1997). But the real triumph belongs to the marvelous Al Pacino (Carlito's Way) who, as Dr. Jack Kevorkian, gives his most nuanced performance in nearly twenty years.
This is Pacino at his finest, physically transforming himself into a near-identical likeness of the frail-looking Kevorkian, expertly speaking in a Michigan-accented nasally tone familiar to all who lived through the times when the eccentric doctor was all over the airwaves defending the rights of those who chose to die with his aid. As You Don't Know Jack illustrates, the quirky doctor was probably not the most media-savvy advocate for those in the right to die movement. And the often hammy Pacino resists making him more palatable to contemporary audiences.
If Pacino's Kevorkian stands out, it is usually for the somewhat complicating glee he sometimes takes in cold-bloodedly promoting his agenda. Whether its capitalizing on what he perceives as Barabara Walters' flirtation with him during an interview or grandstanding for the cameras as a white-wigged revolutionary in a pillory when he arrives for a trial, the self-serving Kevorkian makes you wonder if he isn't more than a little happy with the moniker the press has attached to him.
Levinson (Diner) depicts the grim futility of the life some of Kevorkian's clients face by contrasting actual footage of these subjects explaining their circumstances with dramatized interviews where Kevorkian and his colleague, Janet Good (Susan Sarandon), sadly determine the people are not psychologically fit to have the doctor administer to them. A local Hemlock Society chairwoman, Good faces her own bout with a terminal disease, a pivotal moment in the film which Levinson uses to speculate as to Kevorkian's motivations in pursuing his cause with such zealotry, as the doctor calls it.
The most effective thing the director does, however, is surround Pacino with similar outsized performers who can match wits with the theatrical Pacino. The always engaging Brenda Vaccaro (Midnight Cowboy) returns in a prominent role as Kevorkian's put upon sister, Margo; John Goodman (The Big Lebowski) plays his equally beset assistant, Neal; and Danny Huston (Edge of Darkness) takes over Pacino's usual scenery-chomping as his wild-haired attorney, Geoffrey Feiger.
There's only one glaring flaw to the production: its propensity to capture the period by putting the majority of its actors in wigs or costuming that is a bit too period specific. This creates an effect which pushes one out of the movie. Particularly in the case of Huston's already clownish Feiger, the overemphasis on clothing and hair undermine some fine acting and a gripping subject. Having four of your main actors in such attire threatens to sink the movie altogether.
This annoyance aside, though, You Don't Know Jack takes on the assisted suicide issue with the kind of vigor and talent roster once commonplace in American cinema. HBO proudly produces another exciting film with a subject culled from territory where Hollywood movies now fear to tread.
You Don't Know Jack debuts on HBO, Saturday April 24, at 9 p.m. EST.