“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” wants to remind you again, and again, and again that Norman Lear is a genius. Lear, the prolific writer and producer behind the shows “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” and “The Jeffersons,” is still sharp and driven at age 93, and filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing delve into Lear’s long career by mostly letting the man speak for himself.
When “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” is focused on Lear talking about his work, it’s hard to not get swept up in it all — Lear is witty and charming as he recalls his storied work, and Grady and Ewing punctuate it all with clips from the man’s cavalcade of shows. “All in the Family,” arguably Lear’s best-known work, gets the most attention: by bringing “lovable bigot” Archie Bunker into the homes of Americans everywhere, Lear changed the face of television at a time when harmless and mostly brainless shows like “The Flying Nun” were the standard. With cutting satire, “All in the Family” brought about a brave new world for situation comedy, and from there Lear would spearhead a show that tackled issues like women’s rights (“Maude”), bring about the first show to prominently feature an African American family (“Good Times”), and eventually step away from television entirely to focus on sociopolitical issues and combat the rising tide of the so-called Moral Majority.
Lear’s work was no doubt important, and there are plenty of interviews here with colleagues and fans like Rob Reiner and George Clooney who state as much, but ‘Just Another Version of You’ falters in how it conveys all of this. It’s one thing to have George Clooney sit in front of a backdrop and say that Lear changed the face of television; it’s another to delve further and reveal the extent of the change Lear brought about. There’s also an unfortunate tidiness to the doc — the battles Lear had with the networks (in interviews, Lear has said that the network kept trying to pull “All In the Family” all the way up to the last 20 minutes before it aired) and the censors only get a peripheral mention, and the details on just how Lear went about creating all of his shows are glossed over entirely. The result is something more akin to hagiography; it’s hard to fault Grady and Ewing for this approach, since Lear is clearly a pretty great guy and one hell of a writer, but some more exploration into what makes Lear and his work tick would go a long way.
Not content to sit back and present an uncinematic talking-head documentary, Grady and Ewing make the stylistic choice to have a young actor playing Lear as a child, donning Lear’s trademark hat, in clips cut through the film at odd intervals. At first interesting, this device mostly proves to be inert and dull — something that would be more at home in a stage show than a documentary.
While the flaws of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” aren’t detrimental, they’re amplified by the fact that they stand out sharply against the better elements. When the film works, it really works, such as when Lear talks about his strained childhood with his Archie Bunker-like father, a man who was prone to telling people to “stifle” themselves just like Bunker was. During the final moments, an “All in the Family” clip unfolds showing Carroll O’Connor’s Archie speaking emotionally about his own abusive father. O’Connor’s brilliant, reflective acting is complemented with Lear, who tears up as he watches the clip remembering both the late actor O’Connor and his own father. Another moment involves Lear revealing that a much-repeated family anecdote he rattled off for countless interviews and presentations was actually a lie he made up to present a more idealized version of his childhood. These are the moments of ‘Just Another Version of You’ that really sing and resonate, and if Grady and Ewing had more of them and less effusive praise from fans and family, this could’ve been something truly special. Lear’s talent and achievements are beyond reproach. We accept his brilliance, even without a parade of interviewees reminding us so. If you’ve never heard of Lear or his work, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” is a nice introduction to his greatest hits. Those looking for something with more depth might have to stifle themselves. [B-]