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Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time review – deeply moving portrait of an artist and friend

Robert B. Weide pays tribute to the legendary writer in a slightly indulgent but utterly compelling doc, full of laughs and pathos

There’s a wonderful moment towards the end of Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time in which director Robert B. Weide (probably best known as a director on Curb Your Enthusiasm) explains, to both the audience and himself, why this documentary has taken so many decades to finish. Across the course of its production, Weide became close friends with his literary hero Kurt Vonnegut as they travelled together collecting footage and Weide realised after Vonnegut’s death in 2007 that finishing his movie would mean saying a final goodbye. It’s a moving summation of the film as a whole, one that started as a portrait of an artist but is often most effective as a tribute to a deeply meaningful friendship.

Fittingly, Unstuck in Time bounces around Vonnegut’s life via his writing, his family, his friendship with Weide, and his traumatising experiences in World War II, avoiding basic linearity as best it can. It keeps things consistently fresh and entertaining, even if the techniques of talking heads and archive footage stick to literary documentary tradition. Some nice hand-drawn animated interludes punctuate the action, but Unstuck in Time hardly reinvents the documentary wheel.

With subject matter this engaging, though, it doesn’t really need to. Vonnegut himself is wonderful company, hilarious and tragic, and the dives into his superb novels, especially Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, will be thrilling for any fan of his work. It’s not all rose-tinted glasses, tackling Vonnegut’s failings as a husband and his transparent denials of just how much his war experiences shattered him, but Weide mostly wants Unstuck in Time to play out like you’re deep in conversation with your smartest, funniest friend.

It’s an openly, even riskily, sentimental approach, but one that is undeniably powerful, mixing laughs with pathos across a perhaps overindulgent two hour-plus runtime. Vonnegut was one of the truly great American artists of the 20th century, and it can often be folly to try and bottle that lightning into a documentary, but Unstuck in Time grounds this legendary figure in his friendships, humanising a genius in a lovely, moving way.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is released in UK cinemas on 22 July.

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