Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
Making a documentary about someone as prolific as Norman Lear isn’t an easy task. Sometimes when there’s (a) too much material or (b) the subject is too well known, we get a documentary that looks something more like a greatest hits, learning nothing new.
One of my favorite scenes in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s (the directing team behind Jesus Camp) Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You — which kicked off the 2016 Sundance Film Festival — shows Lear, over the years, often repeating a story about how his grandfather would send letters to the President of the United States. Lear is always in front of a crowd, holding court as he delivered this story with an immense amount of joy. We then learn from the now 93-year-old Lear (who looks fantastic) that he made up this story. It never happened. The man who created Archie Bunker had to also create himself a father figure because his relationship with his own father was so terrible.
As Lear says, “I did what I had to do.”
What’s great about Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is that a lot of these stories about Lear’s childhood come from stories generated out of Lear’s most famous creations: All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. A lot of documentaries like this can get bogged down in a subject’s childhood before we get to the part that everyone wants to see. Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You knows what you want to see. And we see a lot from all of those aforementioned series.
Ewing and Grady also do a wonderful job of making sure this isn’t just a bunch of talking heads. Yeah, sure, we see people like George Clooney and Russell Simmons come on to talk about Lear’s influence (Simmons delivers a great bit of insight on how Good Times was made for white people as a way to make African-American families seem more relatable; The Jeffersons was made for African-Americans by showing a successful couple living the dream), but it’s all done with such style, it avoids feeling derivative.
The latter part of the documentary gets into Lear’s activism for women’s rights and his public battles with the likes of Jerry Falwell, but it all comes back to the television he created. This documentary could have easily been called, “The history of TV.”
We are shown a clip from The Jeffersons that could never, ever air on network television today – a pointed and deft piece of commentary that had Russell Simmons bellowed over in laughter. Later, we see Amy Poehler presenting a lifetime achievement award to Lear, explaining to the audience how hard it is to do comedy that has an important message – so hard that no one does it anymore.
Watching Other People — the debut film from Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly – was a difficult experience because my friend, who was sitting just two seats from me, recently lost his father to cancer. As I watched Kelly’s film about a New York City based writer named David (Jesse Plemons) return home to Sacramento to help take care of his dying mother (Molly Shannon), it was impossible not to think of the experience watching this must be like two seats down from me. Other People doesn’t hold back on the anguish of what it’s like to slowly lose someone you love.
Remember that SNL sketch when Molly Shannon would strut around yelling, “I’m 50! I’m 50 years old!” Strangely, I thought of this a few times while watching Other People. (It probably had a little to do with the fact that David, just like the film’s writer and director, is also a writer on SNL and the show gets name dropped a few times.) But I couldn’t help but think of Shannon’s boisterous “I’m 50” character – a character she performed on SNL when she was in her 30s – as an almost polar opposite to what we see in Other People from the now 51-year-old Molly Shannon. It’s just kind of interesting that when Shannon played 50, she was bragging about how she could still kick, and then here’s the real thing, giving the most nuanced performance of her life. I can’t tell you how pleasing it is to see Shannon get an opportunity to play a role like this.
Other People takes place over the course of a year as we watch David’s mother slowly slip away. The film takes any semblance of hope away from us in the very first scene, as we see the family huddled around their mother who has just passed away. (This is a very good scene, with an unexpected layer of humor.) It’s after that we flash back a year as we watch David struggle with his mother’s illness, his inability to fit in with the gay scene in Sacramento, and with his father’s (Bradley Whitford) inability to accept David’s sexuality.
Other People is a fine first effort from Kelly, but I kept getting a sense that he doesn’t fully trust his audience. There are a few scenes in which everything is spelled out so distinctly, that it almost feels like Kelly is thinking, If I don’t do this, the audience might not get that I’m referring to this scene from 30 minutes ago. The problem is that then those scenes become a bit too on the nose. Regardless, it’s wonderful to see Kelly do so much right with his first film and get such a great performance out of Molly Shannon, someone who has deserved a role like this for a long time. This is a good start to Kelly’s directing career and a good start to this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.