To Be Takei: Sundance Review

George Takei - H 2013
Warp speed, Mr. Sulu, back to the editing room.

Former "Star Trek" shipmates including William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are among those weighing in on the emergence of George Takei as a singular pop-culture figure in Jennifer M. Kroot's documentary.

A winning biographical subject compensates for unremarkable documentary storytelling in Jennifer M. Kroot's structurally disorganized but mostly engaging portrait of George Takei, the erstwhile Captain Sulu from the original Star Trek, who became a crusader for same-sex marriage and a social media humorist beloved by millions. Despite brutal childhood experiences with his family in a dehumanizing Japanese-American internment camp, the portrait that emerges from To Be Takei is of a civic-minded citizen and an eternal optimist, who at 76 still gets a kick out of being a breakthrough Asian figure in Western entertainment culture.

In press notes for the film, Kroot describes Takei as "sort of like the Dalai Lama of pop culture." There's a lot of great material here to support that view, particularly when Chris Million's camera catches the joy that spreads over fans' faces upon meeting the veteran actor. Even Howard Stern, while characteristically irreverent with him, appears disarmed by Takei's self-possessed candor and irrepressible chuckle.

But To Be Takei follows multiple threads without pulling any one of them satisfyingly into focus, making it amusing and even poignant, though not quite the window into its subject's life that it might have been with a more penetrating observer.

In its most compelling arc, the film traces American-born Takei's childhood memories of being transported with his parents and sister after Pearl Harbor, along with countless other Japanese-American West Coast citizens, to a camp in Arkansas fringed by barbed wire and sentry towers. Detainees had their bank accounts frozen, losing their businesses, their farms and their civil liberties. When Takei's father refused to endure further humiliation a year later by completing a Loyalty Questionnaire, the family was moved to the high-security camp at Tule Lake, Calif.

The traumatic return to civilian life amid lingering postwar anti-Japanese sentiment is covered, as is Takei's involvement later in life in repairing relations between the two nations. The film also recaps the congressional hearings during the Ronald Reagan administration, which led to restitution payments to the 60,000 survivors.

Another strand follows Takei's struggle, as an aspiring actor fresh out of UCLA in the early '60s, to crack a profession with minimal Asian representation at that time. Entertaining clips and archival material show his early inroads -- doing voiceovers for Japanese monster movies, a Playhouse 90 drama, cheesy Jerry Lewis comedies, guest spots on Mission: Impossible and The Twilight Zone and a role alongside John Wayne in The Green Berets. The inescapable trap of playing Asian stereotypes in some of these appearances is now a cause of regret.

Then there's the lively Star Trek section, spanning the original '60s TV series and the first film franchise that began in 1979, as well as the countless fan conventions. Of Takei's original crewmates from the Enterprise who are interviewed, Leonard Nimoy offers some thoughtful observations, while William Shatner amusingly makes no effort to appear simpatico. (Takei is shown savoring the chance to strike back in his antagonistic remarks during a Comedy Central Roast of Shatner.) Nichelle Nichols doesn't yield much, but she at least comes off better than poor Walter Koenig, the starship's original Chekov, whose sound bites could be lifted from an antidepressant commercial. Kroot also talks with John Cho, who stepped into Sulu's shoes in the J.J. Abrams reboot, but the director doesn't access anything insightful in the intergenerational exchange.

Perhaps the film's principal focus is Takei's path as a gay man, starting with his earliest awareness of his homosexuality and his initiation with a summer camp counselor, presented in a cute animated segment by Grant Nellessen. The difficulties of being a double minority are touched upon, but this is mostly familiar stuff, as is the portrait of Takei's 29-year relationship with Brad Altman, who took the actor's name when they were married in 2008.

While Brad Takei is no doubt a devoted spouse, the filmmaker can't make him the equal of his husband in terms of charisma and humor. Far too much screen time is spent on his duties as a full-time handler at personal appearances and speaking engagements, which are also excerpted to repetitive excess.

Editor and co-director Bill Weber was behind two tremendously moving documentary chronicles of San Francisco gay life, The Cockettes and We Were Here. But despite the frequent overlay of jaunty music by Michael Hearst, which wouldn't be out of place in a Pee-Wee Herman movie, this film's depiction of a relationship that has evolved during tumultuous decades for gay rights is on the insipid side, lacking infectious joy. As a middle-aged couple, the Takeis seem sweet but not especially interesting, like a mediocre gay sitcom waiting to happen. And considering the momentous strides in the marriage equality battle over the past year, the social context here feels thin.

Likewise, Kroot outlines Takei's explosive popularity, beginning in 2011 as a breakout Facebook star, but doesn't display the analytical savvy to examine the phenomenon.

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Often seeking a strenuous assist from Hearst's score, the film reaches intermittently for emotional peaks -- in a trip to Phoenix to scatter the ashes of Brad's lesbian mother; in Brad's exclusion from a Tokyo ceremony at the Imperial Palace honoring George; in the couple's pilgrimage to the site of the Arkansas internment camp; and most of all, in the 2012 premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre of Allegiance, a musical inspired by the Takei family's internment camp ordeal. But those moments come and go without leaving much of an impression. The musical, in particular, is not shown to great advantage, and if this is a bid to get producers on board for a desired Broadway run, it's a lousy advertisement.

The problem is not the material, which is packed with eventful personal and professional episodes and is certainly absorbing enough. But Kroot's inability to sculpt a robust narrative stops the film from soaring, instead jumbling its various threads into a multifaceted portrait that starts strongly but loses focus precisely when it needs to come together.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

With George Takei, Brad Takei, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, Howard Stern, Dan Savage, Walter Koenig

Production company: Rainbow Shooting Star Pictures, in association with Dodgeville Films

Director-writer: Jennifer M. Kroot

Producers: Gerry Kim, Mayuran Truchelvam, Jennifer M. Kroot, Tina S. Kroot

Director of photography: Chris Million

Music: Michael Hearst

Editor, co-director: Bill Weber

Animation & design: Grant Nellessen

Sales: Submarine Entertainment

No rating, 93 minutes