Dir. by Jennifer M. Kroot - 1 hr. 34 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
There are a few different kinds of documentaries. There's the "something interesting happened," the "something interesting happens," the tell-all biography, the hatchet-job biography, and then there's the ones like "To Be Takei," where it's a favorable autobiography, made with the cooperation of those involved. The main question with films in this genre is whether or not the subject of the film is a worthy one. If not, you have a puff-piece about someone who basically feels the need to have a puff-piece done about them. In this case, George Takei has been in the center of a lot of interesting, historically important events, which makes this a celebration of the man.
It's difficult to imagine that you would want to see "To Be Takei" if you didn't have at least a cursory familiarity with him and his life, even if that just meant that you liked him in "Star Trek." As it turns out, there's been a lot more to his path. As a very young child, his family was removed from their Los Angeles home and placed in internment camps during World War II. He knew early on that he wanted to be an actor, which would be a difficult path to travel, as there weren't many Asian actors on TV or in movies at the time. He was also forced to cover up his sexual orientation for years, until he finally came out later in life, and was a visible face in the fight for gay marriage and equal rights, as well as having actually gotten involved in government, trying to help build public transit in Los Angeles.
"To Be Takei" really is a celebration of all the things that George Takei has accomplished during his life. This isn't a dirt-dishing kind of movie (other than touching on his sort-of feud with William Shatner), and if you expect much of that, you'll be disappointed. Probably the most interesting theme of the film is the disconnect between the darkness of his early life (and the discrimination he faced all along the way) and his current public image, which is mostly due to his comedic work and appearances. When discussion a musical that Takei is part of (on the subject of the internment camps), he brings up the Japanese notion of bearing burdens without losing one's composure (there is a specific word that explains this, which I can't recall at the moment); it's clear that George Takei's entire career has been built around this notion (there's a clip from a Jerry Lewis movie that Takei was in that shows the sort of work that he was allowed to do at the beginning of his career, that serves as an excellent illustration of the point, even if the notion is never explicitly tied to Takei's work).
The biggest asset that "To Be Takei" has is Takei himself. He's effortlessly funny, his soothing voice a welcome companion for an hour and a half. There's a peek into his relationship with his husband, Brad, and the little things that they fight over, and, interestingly enough, how many creative people need someone to play the bad guy on their behalf. It's an odd dynamic, but since a lot of creative work is tied to a person's likability, and it's exceedingly difficult to stay likable and negotiate for the things that one needs out of life, having a hired asshole (my words, not theirs) becomes essential. Brad slips into that role easily in public, and much of the movie has him operating in that vein. There are only momentary peeks behind that role, and they're invariably funny when they pop up.
On the whole, "To Be Takei" is a really enjoyable ride. This is the sort of documentary that you're probably not going to check out if you're not already into the subject, and that's fine. I didn't feel that the movie fell into hero worship - Takei has accomplished real things during his life that have benefited many people, and he deserves acknowledgment for that. Beyond that, this is probably a better biography than a book would be; in a book, you'd just be imagining Takei's voice in your head. Here, you actually get the real deal, with all the charisma and humor that you'd hope for. So if you're favorably inclined to spending 90 minutes with George Takei, by all means, check out "To Be Takei." If nothing else, you'll get some good laughs, and probably a couple of things that you'll want to research on Wikipedia when you're done.
3.5 / 5 - Theatre