A tricky biography of one of America’s most singular voices.
Premise: Recounting the extraordinary life of author Kurt Vonnegut, and the 25-year friendship with the filmmaker who set out to document it.
Listen: I was pre-determined to love Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. I was conditioned to enjoy this film, likely more than the average viewer, from the moment it was announced. I have read 15 of Vonnegut’s published novels, some more than once (which I rarely ever do). I’ve visited his namesake library several times. I have his famous phrase “So it goes” tattooed on my left arm. I used to walk past his mural in downtown Indianapolis on my way in to work every day. Any time a piece of news comes out that concerns the late author, it’s a foregone conclusion that I will check it out. In other words, if you’re looking for an unsentimental, unbiased review of Robert Weide’s documentary, you should probably look elsewhere.
The film seeks to chronicle not only Vonnegut’s life, but his collaboration and friendship with Weide, which spanned more than 20 years. How can one film fully capture the impact that an author like Vonnegut had on American culture, while also telling the story of a burgeoning friendship? The results offer a mixed bag, and I was left wishing that the documentary had chosen one route over the other. Weide recalls early on that he reached out to Vonnegut to propose a documentary in the 1980s and Vonnegut, much to his surprise, responded positively. Vonnegut retells his memories of childhood, family life, high school, his early interest in writing and comedy, and his experiences as a soldier and POW during World War II, which informed his seminal work of Slaughterhouse Five.
Vonnegut’s life and worldview are compelling enough, and he always comes through as warm, friendly, and inviting when interacting with Weide. A straightforward biographical treatment would make for a fine film, but Weide interrupts Vonnegut’s story with his own personal reflections on their relationship throughout the years. This leads to Unstuck in Time‘s biggest issue: the runtime. At 2 hours and 6 minutes long, the documentary threatens to lose even the most diehard Vonnegut fans.
Documentaries can certainly be absorbing when the director involves themselves with their subjects, and this aspect of Unstuck in Time could have been interesting enough to stand on its own. But Weide tends to interrupt one thread with the other, sometimes with no discernable reason for the jump. Perhaps this is meant to evoke the journey of Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s protagonist in Slaughterhouse Five, who jumped around in his own life story at random. Regardless, the documentary could ideally be at least 10-15 minutes shorter.
I could feel the impact of Vonnegut’s death in 2007, despite never having read any of his novels at the time. Weide treats the loss of a close friend with appropriate weight, through both a personal and cultural lens. I don’t know if Unstuck in Time is the perfect examination of Vonnegut’s life and work. I enjoyed seeing Vonnegut in this way; Weide had me wishing I could have been in his shoes, simply soaking up the man’s wisdom and touring various stops along his life’s journey. But the film exists, and that is enough of a gift to me. Because if the film’s release means more people get to experience Vonnegut in the ways that I have, it can do no wrong.
Case in point: I chatted with a cashier reading Cat’s Cradle between taking orders at a coffee shop the other day. He said he was reading the novel for the first time because he saw the trailer and wanted to familiarize himself before seeing the film. Mission accomplished.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time premieres in theaters on November 12.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast, and a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.