July 29, 2022

You Don't Know Jack (2010)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Barry Levinson
Stars: Al Pacino, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon

What it's about. A biopic about Dr. Kevorkian, the advocate for euthanasia who became notorious for assisting the suicides of dozens of unfortunate individuals afflicted with ALS, MS, cancer, quadriplegia, etc.

He was a Michigan physician with more allies than friends. Cocky Geoffrey Fieger (Danny Huston) is his attorney because Fieger enjoys humiliating prosecutor (and political opponent) Thompson (Cotter Smith). Also, the wealthy Fieger works for free.

Another Kevorkian ally is Janet Good (Susan Sarandon), president of the local chapter of the Hemlock Society, and another advocate for the right of die.

Kevorkian is also assisted by his long-suffering sister, Margo (Brenda Vaccaro) and by John Goodman, who plays somebody named Neal Nicol.

Despite struggling for resources and places to assist suicide, Kevorkian manages to euthanize dozens. After three acquitals, the local prosecutor gives up attempting to stop Kevorkian. In each case, the jury is moved by videos made by Kevorkian that shows the suffering endured by the euthanized.

But Kevorkian wants to make euthanasia explicitly legal, so he "pushes the envelope" by injecting the heart-stopping drugs himself. He is put on trial for murder, acts as his own lawyer, and the film essentially ends with his conviction.

How others will see it. Despite the gloomy subject matter, You Don't Know Jack has a fairly high user rating of 7.6 out of 10. There is minimal spread between audience demographics. The user reviews applaud Pacino's performance, and mostly seem noncommittal about Kevorkian himself. The user vote total of 29K is high for a made-for-television movie.

At the Primetime Emmies, the film was nominated for a remarkable 15 awards. It managed to win two, Pacino for Outstanding Lead Actor, and Adam Mazer for his screenplay. Pacino also won trophies from the Screen Actor Guild, the Golden Globes, the Online Film & Television Association, the Satellite Awards, etc.

How I felt about it. You Don't Know Jack reminded me of Paterno (2018). Both are HBO biopics directed by Barry Levinson and starring Al Pacino. In both films, Pacino plays an obsessive, humorless, and controversial modern American historical figure.

Especially in his younger days, Pacino was prone to hammy acting, but no one can object to his performance here. In fact, it's all well done. We do wonder, though, at Kevorkian's apparent indifference to his sister's sudden death, and the revelation that one of his closest friends, Janet, is terminally ill with pancreatic cancer.

As a whole, the film takes the side of Dr. Kevorkian, and expects the audience to sympathize with his cause of euthanasia for those who have no remaining quality of life and no longer want to live. There are arguments for both sides, of course, and the issue is sufficiently complex that it is beyond the scope of this film review.

Ultimately, You Don't Know Jack is a downer. Two of the four leads, Margo and Janet, die during the course of the film. Kevorkian is convicted of second degree murder and is sent to prison. By the time he is released, he is terminally ill with Hepatitis C.

Kevorkian is also a difficult character to like. He cannot bond with people. Though he has friends, they respect him instead of like him. If they stick with him, it is because they believe in his cause. Kevorkian sacrificed his freedom in an attempt to allow death with dignity. He succeeded only in becoming famous. The state of Michigan responded by attempting to close the loopholes in law that Kevorkian (for a time) worked within.