You Don't Know Jack,' premiering Saturday on HBO

April 23, 2010 at 7:02 a.m.
Updated April 22, 2010 at 11:23 p.m.

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By Verne Gay



REASON TO WATCH: Al Pacino's first starring role on the tube since 2003's "Angels in America."

WHAT IT'S ABOUT: In the opening moments, Dr. Jack Kevorkian (Pacino) glances at an elderly woman in a hospital bed - near death, one assumes, her face nearly mummified, contorted, with dried saliva caked on her chin. It's meant to shock, and succeeds. His mother, he says, had that same look of agony, "just excruciating." He tells his sister, Margo (Brenda Vaccaro), that henceforth, his life's work will be death. "It'll be your own specialty, Jack," she says. "You're going to need some business cards, you know."

He doesn't. It's 1990, and within a few years, Jack Kevorkian will become one of the most infamous names on the globe. But he does need a little help from his friends, like Neal Nicol (John Goodman), who has legal access to the essential ingredients of this new trade, notably potassium chloride. His first case is a quadriplegic; the man is instructed to activate the poison release mechanism with his teeth - thus Kevorkian has merely "assisted" as opposed to "abetted."

As his fame grows locally in Michigan, he suddenly finds himself in a vortex of national media attention, which he relishes; it attracts allies, like Janet Good (Susan Sarandon), a right-to-death activist, and enemies, like Oakland County prosecutor Dick Thompson (Cotter Smith).

The battle is joined by Kevorkian's pro-bono lawyer/self-promoter extraordinaire Geoffrey Fieger (Danny Huston). Dr. Death, finally, overreaches during a "60 Minutes" interview with Mike Wallace.

MY SAY: As Kevorkian, Pacino comes perilously close to mimicking Peter Falk as Columbo. He shuffles, mumbles, charms and bloviates. His eccentricities are towering - he watches cartoons on TV, wears powdered wigs to court and plays competent Bach on the flute. His actions are towering as well - about 130 assisted suicides.

But who really is Jack? Is he motivated by compassion, idealism, anger at the Michigan medical establishment, distrust of organized religion, his mother's death? Or is he a megalomaniac ... martyr ... wacko ... publicity-junkie? In this portrayal, all of the above.

BOTTOM LINE: Pacino's performance feels unmoored because there's no one place to moor it. Or perhaps there are too many.



9 p.m. EDT Saturday



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