While director Jennifer Kroot and co-director/editor Bill Webber do a fine job of showcasing what makes actor, writer, and human rights activist George Takei such a fascinating and important historical figure when it comes to Asian and gay actors, the movie they made around him is a maddeningly disjointed mess. The documentary To Be Takei has a lot to cover in a short period of time, but Kroot can’t seem to bring it all together or figure out how she wants to tell the story of a man who literally changed everything about how Hollywood sees homosexuality, Asian Americans, and the power of the internet.
Kroot follows Takei and his husband/manager Brad Altman around through their domestic and professional lives while talking about George’s childhood spent in U.S. internment camps for Japanese citizens during World War II (the subject of his latest musical, also a large part of the film), his struggles with staying in the closet, his time spent in politics, his resurgence to become a modern day internet and TV celebrity, and, of course, a little bit here and there about Star Trek. There are talking head interviews with some of the people who worked with him closest, and the film follows George around as he goes about his day to day business.
Everyone has nice things to say about George, and it’s hard not to. He’s someone everyone should aspire to be in life: outspoken, strong, thoughtful, courageous, and self-effacing without a hint of underlying ego. Watching his history outlined can be fascinating, especially tales of his childhood and the racism he had to endure. But Kroot decides upon a time shifting narrative that starts and stops every twenty minutes or so to go in a completely different direction without any clue how to transition between different aspects of George’s life. There’s a disconnect between the man George was, the man he is now, and how the film approaches his current status as an icon for many people. He’s a man who means a lot of things to a lot of people, for sure, but Kroot never finds the unifying threads that make George who he is. It feels slapped together.
The elements of a good biopic are all here (rises, falls, rivalries, loves, pet-peeves, mixed feelings), and George and Brad are fascinating subjects (especially Brad, who balances his love of George with a hard, business-like edge),giving the film most of its entertainment value and heart, but that isn’t enough. It’s a frustrating sit, that’s hard to get invested in despite the magnetism of its subject. For die hard Takei fans only.