Kurt Vonnegut famously took years to finish his final novel and fittingly his documentary profiler couldn’t seem to finish his film either. Yet, fourteen years after his death, it is finally here, like the doc equivalent of Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote. Vonnegut’s life and career certainly get chronicled, but we see almost as much of Robert Weide in Weide & Don Argott’s Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, which opens Friday in New York.
Before we go any further, we should acknowledge Weide & Argott duly cover Vonnegut appearance in Back to School—truly some peak 1980s movie comedy. They also talk about his books. Weide was a fan since his teen years, so he was thrilled when Vonnegut was receptive to his initial pitch, back in 1982. They got on famously during Weide’s first session of shooting and even better during the next, and so on and so on.
Soon, Weide and Vonnegut became legit friends and the documentarian lost control of his doc. He kept tinkering with it over the years, like Orson Welles and his Don Quixote. Still, he managed to capture big events and record Vonnegut’s thoughts on everything. After Vonnegut’s death, he brought Argott on board to document his documenting, but we can assume he also helped Weide shape his literal archives of Vonnegut material.
A lot of it works relatively well, but not all of it. Frankly, the two-hour-six-minute running time really starts to drag, especially when it celebrates Vonnegut’s Bush derangement period. Honestly, off-color name-calling like “I never thought we see our country led by a Bush, a Dick, and a Colin [colon]” are beneath a writer of Vonnegut’s stature.
Woody Allen: a Documentary (pre-cancellation), so presumably he doesn’t mind running a little long. Regardless, the fist hundred minutes are pretty strong, exploring Vonnegut’s significance in both a literary and pop culture context. Weide also gives his first wife credit for her contributions to his success, even though the filmmaker never met her. There are also some lively animated interludes that evoke the style and attitude of Vonnegut’s illustrations.
A little less of Unstuck would have been a little more, in particular, a little less of his cranky 2000’s. Timequake turned out to be an entertaining and sometimes poignant book (especially when he writes about his late sister, who is discussed at length in Unstuck), so that might have been a good point to end. Still, there are some nice Vonnegut fan-serving moments. Recommended for his admirers, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time opens Friday (11/19) in New York, at the IFC Center.