Repeat after me. Disability is not a caricature.
I consider it practically undeniable that a good majority of the folks who lay their eyes on Jim Bernfield's feature documentary Me to Play will find themselves inspired by it, though such inspiration will be along the lines of what the late Australian activist/comic referred to as "inspiration porn." My gut feeling is that Bernfield himself is one of these folks, a likely mighty fine filmmaker who found himself completely enamored by these two acclaimed actors who found themselves facing the nearly impossible and choosing to do whatever possible.
I understand it. In fact, I deal with it every single day.
I am, perhaps, not the ideal film journalist to check out a film about two actors staring down disability the only way they know how - by acting. As a film journalist with multiple disabilities, I have particularly high expectations of films centered around disability and/or serious health issues and I'm rather uncompromising when it comes to these expectations. In this case, Me to Play centers around Dan Moran and Chris Jones. Moran and Jones represent six decades of acting between them including Broadway, Off-Broadway, film, and television.
Now, Moran and Jones are both facing Parkinson's Disease. While Michael J. Fox has become a universal face for Parkinson's Disease, in some ways this is an unfair representation as Fox, quite simply, has significantly greater means to meet his needs than do a good majority of those living with Parkinson's Disease including both Moran and Jones. Having met in 1995 while sharing a Broadway dressing room during a production of A Month in the Country, Moran and Jones are, with undeniable courage, choosing to tackle Samuel Beckett’s comic masterpiece, Endgame, a complex and difficult piece of theater that makes the case that “there’s nothing funnier than unhappiness.” It is a challenging endeavor as both men are experiencing a rapidly progressive Parkinson's Disease and the symptoms are attacking those elements crucial to all actors.
For those unclear of just what Parkinson's Disease is, "Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder that disables the brain cells that help control movement and balance. Its cause is unknown. There is no known cure.
More than a million Americans are afflicted with Parkinson’s, with 50,000 to 60,000 new cases diagnosed every year. Each person with Parkinson’s has his or her own unique symptoms — trembling hands, stumbling gate, slurred speech, jerky movements, or an expressionless face" according to the Me to Play website.
If you are familiar with Beckett, then you likely already note that Endgame is a rather sublime selection for such an endeavor. Endgame is the story of Hamm, who is blind and cannot stand, and Clov, who can shuffle but cannot sit. Together, these two characters play out a vaudevillian routine of repetitive sorrow as they await the inevitable end to their diminishing lives. Being a Beckett script, Endgame is quite funny amidst the sadness and is ideally suited to two actors transparently facing the challenges presented by Parkinson's Disease.
If you've never experienced disability, and I've lived as a paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida my entire life, I can assure that there's far more humor than sadness involved.
While Me to Play is an admirable effort and in some ways an ambitious one, Bernfield seems unable to truly decide how to focus the film. While Me to Play is arguably a film serving as tribute to Moran and Jones, it practically drowns itself in their current situation and focuses far more on the Parkinson's Disease than on their acting or, more importantly, on the courage involved in this undertaking. There is a magnificent story to be told here, however, it never really gets told in favor of a rather straightforward empathetic documentary that plays all the familiar heartstrings but has little new to say.
It is, of course, nearly impossible to truly dislike a film such as Me to Play unless you are truly heartless. Quite honestly, both Moran and Jones are so engaging that I'd likely rewatch the film just to listen to them again. Unfortunately, Me to Play too often crosses the line into caricature and idealizes these gifted actors in a way that is actually ableist and disrespectful of their talents. It's certainly not that Me to Play should have ignored Parkinson's Disease, not at all, but to truly inspire I wanted a much stronger focus on the fullness of their identities and the true power of this effort. At times, it seems as Me to Play is going to reach for it but for the most part Bernfield seems content to make the film about Parkinson's Disease rather than about artists with Parkinson's Disease.
There's a huge difference.
That said, it bears repeating that I am a film journalist with multiple disabilities and an incredibly demanding one at that. For most, Me to Play will be an inspiring motion picture about two men who look unhappiness in the face and choose to laugh. While Me to Play may not be all it could be, it's still an admirable film telling a powerful and achingly human story that deserves to be told.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic