This film does two things that I love to find in documentaries: It tells me a lot about a subject I didn’t know and it goes in a direction I didn’t see coming.
Early on, when I heard filmmaker Robert B. Weide talk about what a fan of Kurt Vonnegut he was in high school, I wondered why he was inserting so much of himself in the story. Sure, it was great seeing the teacher that introduced him to Vonnegut’s work, and interesting to see he started a Vonnegut club at his school. And we all can put ourselves in his shoes when he sent a message to Vonnegut wanting to make a documentary on him, after his documentary about the Marx brothers aired on PBS. He was just thrilled Vonnegut even called back and left a message on his answering machine. Just as I was wondering why Weide was putting so much of himself into a documentary, it all made sense. And made this journey so dang enjoyable to watch unfold. What started as the making of a documentary on the legendary author, became a life-long friendship.
My friend David Dodd is obsessed with Vonnegut (he even gave me a copy of Cat’s Cradle when he found out I had never read it). Although I was familiar with Slaughterhouse-Five, I hate to admit I was most familiar with Vonnegut for his cameo (perhaps the best in movie history) in the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School.
So Vonnegut agreed to let Weide film him, and...guess how the documentary turned out? Well, they spent 40 years filming it, and it never got made. Well, not in Kurt’s lifetime. We’re finally getting to see it, but now it’s evolved into also showing the friendship that developed between these two.
There are interesting interviews with Vonnegut’s brother and adult children. There are some fantastic home movies of Kurt as a child, playing with his sister and family. And what happens to his sister, her husband, and their kids...will have you bawling your eyes out.
There are trips to his childhood home in Indianapolis. We learn about his father, an architect who designed the biggest buildings in their hometown. I did wish different scenes were filmed at his high school reunion (Class of 1940). We only see him talking with one guy, and I’ve always wondered what would happen when a really famous person went to their reunion. Surely someone brought a copy of Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse for him to sign, or old yearbooks they wanted him to sign. I wanted a bit of that.
A lot of times critics spoil things when they review movies. When reviewing documentaries, they do it worse than feature films. So I won’t tell you the various heartbreaking stories we learn about Vonnegut’s life.
And it’s rather enjoyable to learn, not only of Vonnegut’s life, but the filmmaker and some of his struggles. I was wondering how Weide made a living, if he was a documentary filmmaker and he’s just spending all this time hanging out with his literary hero; but we learn about his other documentaries, and becoming the director on Curb Your Enthusiasm. It all just increases your enthusiasm for this documentary. It’s also amazing to think that Weide also wrote the screenplay adaptation for Vonnegut’s Mother Night (the movie had a star-studded cast of Nick Nolte, Alan Arkin, Kirsten Dunst, John Goodman, David Strathairn, and Sheryl Lee). Fun fact: the actor (Keith Gordon) that opens the door to see Vonnegut at the door in Back toSchool, is the one that directed Mother Night.
So Weide went from running a Vonnegut class at his high school and contacting a 60-year-old author...to now turning 60 himself, and finally finishing this project.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t a tad disappointed. For example, Vonnegut’s first wife was so supportive of him and his writings (she basically got his short stories published by contacting publishers after he got rejection letters), you want to know more about the much younger photographer (Jill Krementz) he left his wife for.
Since The World According to Garp is one of my favorite movies, I loved seeing John Irving in this.
It was clever that every still photo of Vonnegut had smoke coming from the cigarettes.
It’s also amazing to think how this filmmaker was such a huge fan that interviews with his idol lead to a decades-long friendship. I met my favorite basketball player, Magic Johnson, a few times. I interviewed the band members of my favorite group (The Doors) numerous times. It never occurred to me to try to strike up a friendship with them. Next time I meet Don Cheadle at the Critics’ Choice Awards, I’m going to suggest we go out for a beer and hang out [side note: I almost smoked a cigar with Gary Oldman when he won the Critics’ Choice award for playing Winston Churchill; long story].
On my long list of songs that should be retired, the Chambers Brothers “Time Has Come Today” is used in this doc, but I’ll give it a pass here; since the movie’s called Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time (although I think a better title would have been: Kurt Vonnegut: So it Goes).
4 stars out of 5. Watch this, whether you’re a fan of Vonnegut or not.