Sometimes you just don’t connect with a movie.
Dick Johnson is Dead is one of those movies.
When I first heard about it, it seemed like a strange little film with an odd premise. It was being pitched as a documentary film about a real-life person by the name of Dick Johnson whose real-life, documentary filmmaker daughter, Kirsten Johnson, wanted to make a movie that would help the two of them prepare for the end of Dick’s life.
Granted, it sounded unusual, but so far, so good. I was aboard.
Her approach, however involved staging a number of scenarios depicting various, random ways that Dick’s life might end.
This seemed a bit grim, but there were assurances that it was a good-natured project, made with Dick’s full cooperation and support. OK.
It still seemed a little strange to me, but people deal with death in a myriad of ways, so why not poke a little fun at the Grim Reaper and face the final curtain call with a defiant smile and chuckle.
At this point, I was still in.
What I expected to see, were a string of hilarious set-ups, intended to be good fun for everyone involved. But that’s not exactly how the movie rolled out.
Yes, there are some cleverly staged scenes in which Dick apparently dies as the result of accidents and mishaps.
The producers of the film requested that reviewers not give away details or spoilers, so I won’t.
Suffice it to say the scenes are convincingly staged with the help of professional stunt people and special effects make-up artists.
Though the scenes are grimly shocking, everyone involved seems to have a laugh afterward, including Dick Johnson. It’s pretty much what the trailers and synopses lead you to expect.
While you might also expect that this is what the movie is mostly about, you discover that it only accounts for a relatively small amount of screen time in Dick Johnson is Dead.
It’s not so much about imagining all the ways that he could die, as much as creating an excuse to offer rambling account of Dick Johnson’s life.
We learn that Dick was a successful psychiatrist whose memory and mental health began to deteriorate when his beloved wife passed away a few years before this film was made.
His daughter, who dearly loves her father and can’t imagine life without him, convinces Dick that, in light of his failing health, it’s time to close up his business, sell his home and move him into an apartment adjacent to hers in the Big Apple, along with her two kids and the kids’ two fathers.
At this point, the film shifts into a straightforward documentary of dad, following him around and recording his reactions to end-of-life issues like selling the car, facing the loss of freedom and independence and trying to adapt the pressures of urban life.
And also, making a movie about all the ways that one could meet his maker.
As it turns out, Dick is a religious man, a Seventh Day Adventist.
He believes in an afterlife where he will be reunited with his family and friends after his passing.
To illustrate the experience, director Kirsten Johnson jarringly shifts gears and creates a campy, low-budget tableau deep dive into Dick’s inner world of thoughts and imagination.
What we’re shown is a studio set piece depicting heaven, with glitter falling from the sky to the sounds of angelic music.
People long-deceased are portrayed by actors dressed as angels holding photographs of the dearly beloved’s faces attached to sticks.
Jesus makes a brief appearance, washing Dick’s deformed feet which have been a source of embarrassment throughout his life.
Magically they are transformed and Dick smiles in joyous gratitude.
It comes off as something that is a click or two away from a Sixties-era Fellini movie. Not what you’re accustomed to seeing in a documentary film.
At this point, you may be wondering how a movie like this could be considered a documentary film. I know I was.
Not that documentary films can’t exercise some degree of creativity when necessary and appropriate. But when they stray into the domain of pranks and fantasy sequences, it seems that they need to be categorized as something other than documentary film.
Unless the attempt to document someone’s imagination is fair game.
Dick Johnson is Dead begs the question.
In an overall sense, the staged, set-up approach to the film seems to be lifted straight out of TV shows (and subsequent spin-off feature films) like Jackass and Impractical Jokers.
It’s an entertaining gimmick, but it falls short of providing any serious insight with regard to addressing the film’s purported theme about coming to terms with death through the use of dark comedy.
There is no moment of insight or revelation that emerges from the pranks. The approach seems to go nowhere, beyond a marketing hook.
Stylistically, the movie is a mishmash of footage, both archival and staged. A number of illogical cutaway shots are nothing short of head-scratching.
One of the strangest moments involves Kirsten sitting on the floor in her living room shooting footage of her father sitting in a chair, as they chat.
At some point, she becomes so emotionally overwhelmed during the conversation that she lays the running camera down on the floor.
What follows is a sideways shot of the floor and Dick’s shoes as we hear the two of them sharing a heartfelt moment while they embrace, off camera.
It’s the kind of sequence one might expect from an amateur shooting a home video.
It’s not what you expect from a documentary filmmaker with decades of experience.
In my experience, documentary camera people faithfully and unflinchingly record what unfolds in front of their cameras, putting emotion and judgement aside, even in the most difficult circumstances.
Respectfully, a better choice here might have been to have someone else shoot the scene, or possibly just lock the camera down on a tripod.
Without giving away too much, the ending of Dick Johnson is Dead is probably not what you expect based on its title.
As to whether it qualifies to be categorized as a documentary film, well, I’ll leave that up to you.
In fairness, it won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling. No argument with that.
The problem here is that it seems to be innovative for the sake of being innovative.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is on Netflix.