DYING TO DO LETTERMAN
Directed by: Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina
Starring: Steve Mazan, Ray Romano, Kevin Nealon, Arj Barker, Jim Gaffigan, and Brian Regan
If there is one thing you could never accuse me of, it’s being heartless. Yes, generally speaking, I am a cynical movie critic. But that’s never gotten in the way of my ability to empathize with others nor cry at those incredibly persuasive ASPCA commercials. I tend cry in films where the characters survive and triumph over insurmountable odds. You add the threat of cancer in there and I get verklempt. That’s why it came with great surprise – shock even – that I didn’t shed one tear while watching DYING TO DO LETTERMAN.
Now before you start calling me a soulless bitch robot, let me explain the basics of this documentary about Steve Mazan’s road to performing on Letterman. DYING TO DO LETTERMAN starts in 2005 when then 34-year-old Mazan learns he has incurable liver cancer and may only have five years to live. The devastating news throws Mazan into hyper-drive to make his childhood dream come true: performing comedy on THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN. Over the course of five years, we get to see Mazan race his own ticking clock to achieve his nearly impossible goal. Hilarious and heart-breaking, Steve brings us his own comedic perspective on living with cancer.
The message is clear from the beginning: It’s not how much time you have, it’s what you do with it. While I certainly respect and feel humbled by this man’s journey, ambition, and motivation – I never felt completely connected to his story. The problem being in the way the film is laid out for the viewer. Watching plot unfold using home video footage spliced with interviews of other successful comedians – such as Kevin Nealon, Arj Barker, Ray Romano, Jim Gaffigan, and Brian Regan- are the documentaries strengths. Where it gets into trouble is in its use of emcee style narration – done in a more annoying Morgan Spurlock fashion – that kept pulling me out of Mazan’s story. The audience can feel the tone of the film without all these “cutesy” cutaways.
The most genuinely funny moments are the small, understated events that are captured. While waiting for a CAT scan, Mazan says to his wife, “We should just come here and listen to music.” Jackie Mazan’s reaction to her son being booked on two national TV shows is priceless. Mazan’s trip to Iraq and stay at Saddam Hussein’s palace yields some very funny jokes about MTV Cribs. However, these authentic moments are sparse. When the triumphant climax happens (that you know is coming from the very beginning of the film), it’s not quite the spirit soaring moment you had hoped for. A musical cue pushes your heart to swell rather than letting the moment play in its more organic manner.
Despite the documentary’s maladies, the film has a lot of heart. Unfortunately the warmth filmmakers Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina have produced feels a bit manufactured – like it came from a microwave rather than a spectacular flame. DYING TO DO LETTERMAN is playing on Hollywood’s well tread territory. Nothing against the extremely likeable Mazan (and his incredibly cute two dachshunds) but as far as inspirational stories go, you’ve seen it before and done to better effect.
DYING TO DO LETTERMAN is playing at DocuWeeks in Los Angeles September 2-8