By Eric Kohn | Indiewire August 20, 2014 at 10:00AM
Once known only as the enterprising Mr. Sulu on the initial iteration of “Star Trek,” George Takei has since blossomed into so much more.
Jennifer M. Kroot’s decently entertaining if somewhat one-note portrait “To Be Takei” tracks the Asian-American actor’s transition from supporting player to major pop culture figure, emphasizing his late career emergence as a modern gay icon. Though not as sophisticated look at creativity found in Kroot’s Kuchar brothers documentary “It Came From Kuchar,” the new movie similarly goes down easy by letting its affable subject lead the way. Now almost as popular for his amusing Facebook posts as his original “Star Trek” performances, Takei makes for a genial screen presence as Kroot’s movie capably acknowledges his contemporary appeal even while adding nothing new.
Mainly pairing interviews with Takei, his family, friends and colleagues alongside footage from his recent public appearances, “To Be Takei” emphasizes two major developments that define his life story: his experiences before and after coming out of the closet and his childhood memories of Japanese internment camps. Discussing the latter at countless public speaking events, Takei strikes a serious pose, while his gay activism shows his cheerier side; collectively, these sequences make it clear that Takei has constantly struggled with his identity on multiple fronts, which introduces an unmistakable emotional quality to his ubiquitous grin. But “To Be Takei” really shines in its ongoing peek at his domestic life with his longtime partner Brad, whom he married in 2008. Content to live in Takei’s shadow, the equally good-natured Brad — now Takei’s personal manager — points to the support system that allowed the actor to sail into the later stages of his career.
Outside of the sweet, amusing peeks at the couple’s home life, however, “To Be Takei” mainly outlines Takei’s career by drawing a contrast between his uneven early days and more recent successes as a public figure. Kroot hilariously pokes at the not-so-subtle sexual dimensions of the original “Star Trek,” particularly in relation to Takei’s character, and explores his frustrations with playing racist Asian stereotypes before he hit it big. Takei’s secretive life forms a telling contrast with his public choices after his decision to come out, when he makes up for lost time at every chance he gets — from the “It’s OK to be Takei” campaign to his routine appearances on The Howard Stern Show, where he once denied being gay and has since become the show’s mascot of sexual freedom.
Takei’s memories of internment camps don’t carry the same fluid qualities as the story of his adult experiences, largely because Kroot relies on an assemblage of speeches the actor has given at countless events, the result being the fairly static feeling of just watching Takei lecture about his past. The collage-like quality in which these tales unfold simplify the portrait by foregrounding its authorized nature.
Even so, with his trademark baritone and focused diction, Takei is a natural storyteller who lends an enjoyable flow to the movie’s uncomplicated proceedings. Even its slighter ingredients, like the actor’s bizarre rivalry with William Shatner, speak to Takei’s triumphant battle to become more than a background figure. Anyone remotely familiar with Takei’s current public image won’t be surprised by the way it’s detailed here.
Eventually, “To Be Takei” gets around to plugging “Allegiance,” a musical about the plight of Takei’s family in the internment camp, which Takei currently hopes to bring to Broadway. Based on the clips shown, the musical appears to be an utterly sincere and fairly straightforward ode to Takei’s perseverance — just like Kroot’s movie, which provides little more than a basic overview of Takei’s life, but for the same reason is a competent celebration of it.
A version of this review ran during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. "To Be Takei" opens in limited release this Friday.