There’s a good reason why so much of Robert B. Weide and Don Argott’s intimately superficial “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” is spent explaining why and how the film came to be: This is a biographical documentary aimed at people who love Vonnegut’s books, but people who love Vonnegut’s books have already read about the key points of his biography. Not only do they bleed through the bindings of “Slaughterhouse-Five” as if his wounds were still fresh, they’re also smudged across the most dog-eared pages of novels like “Player Piano,” “Breakfast of Champions,” and “Timequake” (the last of which even interrogates his creative process in its own playful way).
Vonnegut’s writing laughs at our place in the stars by seeing it through the pinhole of personal experience, and his readers can’t have their minds blown by the cosmic adventures of characters like Billy Pilgrim and Kilgore Trout without learning about the author’s most formative experiences along the way. Schenectady. Dresden. Frustration and success. These details are braided throughout Vonnegut’s texts with such ecstatic clarity that even his diehard fans may not care to watch someone else dig into the margins around them for two hours.
And Weide knows that — maybe better than anyone. The Emmy-winning “Curb Your Enthusiasm” director tinkered on this documentary for almost 40 years in search of its ultimate shape, a process that sparked a deep personal friendship with its subject and a second entire movie (the 1996 Vonnegut adaptation “Mother Night”) along the way. In fact, Weide spent so long trying to crystallize Vonnegut’s genius on screen that he recently discovered his own 1982 fan letter, the one he wrote requesting permission to shoot this film, preserved alongside other historic documents in the author’s University of Indiana archive. Talk about coming unstuck in time.
Needless to say, Weide is very well aware that Vonnegut’s writing is a clearer and more enduring testament to the man than anyone else could ever hope to make, and yet the man became so special to him that he still felt compelled to try. “This was going to be a conventional author documentary,” Weide narrates during the opening minutes of his fourth-wall-breaking final cut, “but when you take almost 40 years to make a film, you owe some kind of explanation.” While it’s unclear if Weide feels like that explanation is owed to his subject, his audience, or both, “Unstuck in Time” is at its best during the occasional stretches in which it candidly unpacks its own creation — in large part because of how those Vonnegut-esque stretches tacitly concede to the failings of the film around them.
Weide achieved a closeness to his literary hero that he never could have imagined when he first wrote Vonnegut that letter, and at a certain point he must have realized that his eventual documentary couldn’t possibly be as rewarding as the process of making it. I imagine that dilemma only intensified after Vonnegut’s death; to paraphrase the final lines of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” there’s as much to say about a genius as there is about a massacre, “things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’” The more Weide shares with us about his relationship with Vonnegut, the more obvious it becomes that he’s explaining why this became such a conventional documentary after all.
If “Unstuck in Time” offers an erudite and affectionate portrait of its subject despite being so oddly generic, Weide shares his own frustrations with it in such a plainspoken way that he can’t help but pass them along to us. He begins with a prologue that broadly establishes his personal connection with Vonnegut, apologizes for appearing on camera (this wasn’t the kind of documentary he wanted to make), and conveys the hair-pulling agony of finishing this film with a glimpse of the Final Cut timeline on his computer screen — part infinity mirror, part unsolvable jigsaw puzzle.
With that out of the way, it’s on to all of the usual business: Vonnegut was born here, he moved there, he had this kind of dad, he had that kind of mom, and after the war he was lucky enough to marry the wonderfully supportive woman who would push him to become the writer we all know and love. This history lesson is spackled together with a mix of cogently arranged archival footage, talking head interviews with family and friends, and Vonnegut’s written reflections on his own life — read here by Sam Waterston, whose soft voice speaks to the spirit of this documentary better than it does Vonnegut’s mustardy “so it goes” smirk.
You couldn’t ask for a clearer step-by-step account of how the future Bokononist followed his brother to General Electric, or how his experience as a publicist for the giant conglomerate directly inspired his first novel. On a similar tip, there’s something powerfully succinct about the section detailing how Vonnegut adopted his nephews after their parents died in quick succession, which ends with those now-grown kids reflecting on how their surrogate father was kind enough so long as he wasn’t in one of his moods or interrupted at work. Vonnegut was just like any other writer, except for the ways in which he was profoundly unlike any other writer (a television clip eulogizes him as “an oracle of the Boomer generation,” and though “Unstuck in Time” articulates how Vonnegut anticipated the horrors of the 21st century, Weide and Argott are wise enough to focus this tribute on the personal impact of Vonnegut’s work).
The notion of extended families emerges as a theme here, particularly as Weide seems to adopt Vonnegut as a surrogate father of his own. And while that seems to answer the most probing question of the author’s fiction — what are people for? — the nuances are easily lost amid the ups and downs of Vonnegut’s career. Worse, they don’t square with this documentary’s unwillingness to probe deeper into its subject’s personal life. To judge by the correspondence between Weide and Vonnegut, their friendship remained understandably tinged with reverence to the very end, and the filmmaker was never comfortable probing his hero on a number of sensitive subjects (e.g. why he cratered his marriage at the height of his success). A mile wide and an inch deep, “Unstuck in Time” skitters along the surface of things as if afraid the ice below might crack at any minute.
Strangely, the more personal aspects of this story are made all the more poignant because the rest of the film is so paint-by-numbers. It’s touching to hear the tainted kindness of Vonnegut’s singular wit in different contexts than we’re used to, particularly in the letters he wrote to Weide and through his sweetly begrudging participation in this documentary before he died. There’s a palpable degree of pride in Vonnegut’s affection for (and appearance in) Weide’s “Mother Night,” and it’s also quite amusing to learn how it came about as a direct result of the author’s iconic cameo in the Rodney Dangerfield classic “Back to School.”
Weide wrote a fan letter to his favorite writer, and soon found himself with a lifelong friend. If “Unstuck in Time” lovingly eulogizes them both while ultimately doing justice to neither, Weide shouldn’t beat himself up for that: There’s only so much a two-dimensional art form can do to honor a fourth-dimensional artist.
“Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” is now playing in theaters and on VOD.
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