By Elias Savada.
[With] a low-key ghoulish humor…Jack Has a Plan bookends the moments of Jack’s emotional departure with an audio-visual scrapbook of memories and some lovely discoveries.”
There’s a low-key ghoulish humor that welcomes viewers to this documentary: “Formaldehyde Films Presents,” especially since this life-affirming story is all about approaching a fond farewell to one person’s mortal existence. He’s a guy with the eponymous plan, a fashionable tuxedo, and a schedule to keep. Single show – no repeat performance.
That would be Jack P. Tuller, a bespectacled, sandy-haired San Francisco musician, storyteller, and self-proclaimed apartment guru diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1994. A quarter century later, when all remedies to destroy his body’s unwanted interloper have been exhausted, and when he puts the kibosh on a proposed rigorous chemo program, he finds himself battling the terminal effects of Major Neurocognitive Disorder on his own terms. Joining him for this goodbye wake, a multi-year lead up captured in an ever organized and sometimes amusingly witty way (via bits of old theatrical material such as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and ephemeral film footage), is director Bradley Berman, Jack’s long-time friend and best man at his wedding, bringing about a resolved, matter-of-fact closure as we learn about his past and present life in advance of his more resolute future. They share the film’s semisweet singular voice.
Jack Has a Plan bookends the moments of Jack’s emotional departure with an audio-visual scrapbook of memories and some lovely discoveries. He was the product of a broken home and raised abysmally by an un-loving beauty-queen racist single mom who still refuses to admit she was wrong when she forced her high school age son to have a nose job (the least of her many abysmal life choices for her child). Jack seeks out the birth father he never knew. His mother had lied to him that he had died in a crash off the Devil’s Slide in Half Moon Bay — an outlandish story he never believed. Thankfully, there is much happiness in that whimsical reunion – even if the DNA tests they take might reveal some other story. Aside from the shared facial features, their senses of humor align. As for mom, she’s just an unfortunate piece of his past and one best emotionally and visually blurred out throughout the film.
Of course, the thing is, we ALL will go someday, but Jack’s determination bemuses Bradley, who wonders why his friend wants the whole thing on tape. “Completely,” Jack replies, because the tumor has affected his writing abilities, so he wants the filmmaker to tell his story. And it’s an affectionate tale, with Jack’s wife, Jennifer Cariño, offering her own life jacket spin on a relationship that began just before he had his first surgery. Bits from joy-filled home movies and Jack’s quirky 1980s music videos follow.
For the most part it’s Jack front and center, offering his take on own fate, and for the most part, it’s an uplifting/heartbreaking look at an observably sad situation commiserated to Bradley during Jack’s difficult mental transition, “How would you feel if you can’t remember how to put on the toaster? How would you feel if you took cat food and put soap in it?”
Jack’s friends (including cartoonist Jonathan Lemon, which has sketched out Jack’s life in various panes) and family will have this memento to celebrate his personal connection to them. For the rest of us, we’re along for the 72-minute ride, perhaps gathering some poignant observations that might shape our own futures.
Jack’s plan evolved thanks to one of the numerous Death with Dignity state laws, and particularly the 2016 California effort that permitted physician-assisted suicide, written with the help of palliative care specialist Torrie Fields, coincidentally a neighbor of Jack’s. She is assisting with his transition through frank conversations captured by Bradley’s camera.
The never doubting Jack ruminates “I just can’t believe I’m gonna be gone.” His wife ultimately realizes that his ability to decide his own fate is a gift. A very tearful one for all who have gathered to bid him farewell.
Jen will add a fitting postscript, accompanied by “Six Cold Feet in the Ground,” a 1930s blues tune sung by Leroy Carr. It adds a mournful epitaph to the piece, enough for everyone to choke up over – much like Jack’s friends did in those final moments.
Obviously, it’s harder to hold your own party when you’re dead. And the range of emotions expressed over the last third of the film — the countdown clock wiping away the days — run from fathomless love to quiet disbelief to utter sadness to tearful acceptance. Bradley ably covers all the bases for bits and bites from friends family. But for Jack, he likes going out in his own blaze of glory. Under the same circumstances, we should all be so lucky to share his determined fortitude.
See you on the other side.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).