By Mike Dub
*Now playing at the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco.
To Be Takei, an unfocused celebrity puff piece on actor and activist George Takei, falls into the same trap that many biopics and documentary profiles do: it tries to cover so much ground that it can only superficially investigate much of what it is trying to say. As the film illustrates, Takei is a lot of things: husband, son, actor, sci-fi legend, gay rights activist, Japanese-American rights activist, Facebook auteur, and – did you know he ran for city council in the ‘70s? Takei is so many things to so many people that the film can’t possibly cover everything with any amount of depth. So instead, filmmaker Jennifer M. Kroot allows overviews to all the facets of Takei, while trying portray the “real” person behind the fame as an everyday man and husband. However, that creates another problem altogether.
By showcasing Takei’s relationship with his husband, Brad Altman, the film comes to greatly rely on the “charm” of watching two old men bicker with each other like old hens. The idea, I suppose, is to expose the minutia of their lives, thereby normalizing their relationship, a noble endeavor and one presumably worthy of Takei’s reputation for gay rights activism over the last decade. It’s a fine conceit, but in practice we are left with not-so-thrilling sequences of Takei getting a haircut; Takei nitpicking with his husband about using the term “lifestyle”; Takei telling Will Wheaton, “You’ve gained weight”; Takei and husband discussing where they should eat; and lots and lots of driving. These sequences have all the cloying awkwardness of dinner with my grandparents, but filtered through the anxiety inherent in people who are being constantly filmed.
Aside from the personal investigation into Takei’s current life, much of the film concentrates on Takei’s childhood, during which his family was interned in a Japanese-American camp during World War II. The story is interesting, but it is told through a series of lectures by Takei to various groups around the country. Kroots constantly cuts between lectures, having Takei start a sentence in one and finish it in another. It’s her way of trying to break things up and add some life to those sequences, but it just reminds us of how pat and rehearsed the lecture is, to the point that when he is talking in an interview format to the camera, even his conversation carries the unemotional weariness of repetition.
The rest of the film is an uneven exploration into The Importance of George Takei, where nearly equal weight is given to his culturally transformative appearances in positive Japanese-American roles as to his daily Facebook posts. There is a lengthy section concerning Takei’s role as a gay rights activist, the best section of the documentary, but one that would have been more interesting had the film not been pulled in too many other directions, rendering any nuanced approach to the issue of closeted homosexuality in Hollywood completely impossible. The extent of its political outrage consists of the same fish-in-a-barrel target practice we’ve grown accustomed to in activist documentaries. When Takei discusses the veto of a gay marriage bill in California, the movie cuts to a montage of people with signs that proclaim God’s hatred of gays, along with a clip in which Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is pelted by an egg. So much for political discourse.
Even all of that wouldn’t have even been so terrible, had it not been for the late realization that To Be Takei is, in fact, just a publicity piece for his new play (“coming to Broadway in 2014,” the film assures us), a musical based on his experiences in the Japanese internment camp. We catch glimpses of rehearsals, a few bars from a few of the show tunes, and Takei’s sincere explanation of the catharsis of acting in it. Just before the film’s credits start rolling, we are told of the awards the play has been nominated for and the box office records it has broken. If only the movie had started with that unabashed advertisement, we could have saved a lot of time.