The title "You Don't Know Jack" (HBO, 9 tonight) already gives you a hint that this might be a different kind of biopic.
After all, this is the story of Jack Kevorkian, the face of assisted suicide in this country, which wouldn't seem a subject begging for a sassy moniker.
But it works. The first hour of "You Don't Know Jack" is a lively, funny look at a man that lots of people have heard of, even seen, yet know little about. As played by Al Pacino, he is a hoot, a character, a quirky, stubborn man who's certain he's on the right path because it just makes sense to him.
The second hour, though, gets darker.
But back to that first hour. We're introduced to Kevorkian in 1989, just as he begins his crusade. His allies include his devoted sister Margo (Brenda Vaccaro) and his longtime friend and medical supplier Neal (John Goodman). Both completely believe that Kevorkian's 'death counseling' is the right thing, and both love him.
Kevorkian soon also gets the support and friendship of Janet Good (Susan Sarandon), a member of the Hemlock Society. And then, when he needs legal help, Kevorkian gets it for free from Geoffrey Fieger (Danny Huston), a cocky, grandstanding attorney.
Pacino is wonderful in this part; as I wrote earlier, Kevorkian is a bit of an oddball. So odd, there's no need for Pacino to overdo it (as he's want to do) and he doesn't. The interplay between Pacino's Jack and Vaccaro's Margo is especially fabulous; there's a scene where they have an argument that says everything about their relationship; the frustration, the love, the birth order. Just amazing.
Huston, too, does well as Fieger, a great lawyer who looks out for Jack because it's good business for himself. It's not that he doesn't believe in the cause, he's just an operator. For him there's always an end game. You can tell Huston is having a lot of fun.
For a maudlin topic, the first half of the film is a romp. And then it shifts. "Jack" still has moments of wit in the second hour, but the lightness goes away. That might have been deliberate, related to the way the first half ends.
The film, I think, tells you more about Jack in terms of his thinking about euthanasia than it does about Jack the man. He's guarded; in one scene Sarandon's character has to coax out of him a pivotal story that shaped his beliefs. It's clear he's never told the story before. Kevorkian also doesn't believe he's important, except as he relates to his mission.
I'd say too that Kevorkian comes off as the good guy here and the State, the big evil. I'll admit it's hard to argue against assisted suicide so stridently when you see Kevorkian's patients and their families talk about unending pain. But the sanctity of life argument gets short shrift. The film, by the way, dignifies their deaths by naming each patient as their lives end.
The film ends with Kevorkian beginning his eight-year prison stint, a direct result of serving as his own lawyer, and maybe, the film suggests, losing his circle of friends to whom he'd listen. Dr. Kevorkian is still alive and since the Supreme Court has refused to rule, so is the issue of assisted suicide.
"You Don't Know Jack" may not revive the discussion, but it's a fine look at the man who so passionately raised it.