“I just want more of life” is how filmmaker Mark Weixler responds when asked by an interview subject why he has chosen to make the documentary “How to Live Forever,” a look at several folks who have defied normal life expectancy and others working to extend said expectancy even further. While this is a plenty interesting subject, Wexler’s glib, undeveloped answer highlights exactly what’s wrong with the movie: it was made without the intent to ask a specific question or prove a clearly stated hypothesis. As a result, the audience is left with a lot of loosely related vignettes about life and death, without any more concrete, unifying theme.
Don’t get me wrong, Wexler’s interviews are often amusing — his subjects represent a diverse, engaging bunch who all have bold opinions about aging. The film’s most memorable sequence features Buster, a 101-year-old Briton who drinks beer instead of water, has smoked since he was a child, runs marathons, and cleans vans for a living. But Wexler doesn’t pretend that Buster’s disregard for conventional health-related wisdom is the only ticket to a long life; another great interview is with the late fitness guru Jack Lalaine, who was still in fighting form when the doc was shot. Aging experts, such as Dr. Aubrey de Grey, who intends to have his body cryogenically preserved while the technology for revitalization is developed, also provide musings.
But for as rich as his body of subjects is, Wexler doesn’t introduce a single provocative idea and, as a result, “How to Live Forever” feels tainted by its lack of conviction. An expert documentarian like Werner Herzog can get away with a broad central premise and unfocused structure because his interview questions are so compelling, finding substance and significance through tangents. But Wexler doesn’t have Herzog’s expert ability to unearth humanity, making the exercise feel inert, episodic. It’s enjoyable to hear the interviewees’ unique views on the aging process, but Wexler never probes very deep. Only the documentaries of Morgan Spurlock rely more on surface entertainment, which is interesting because Spurlock’s all-concept, no-content approach to filmmaking is virtually the opposite of Wexler’s.
Then again, to approach this subject in a more academic, intellectualized way may have been virtually impossible for Wexler, given of the breadth of his subject. An entire film could have been devoted, for instance, to the running debate over whether scientifically prolonging the human lifespan is ethical — a topic that Wexler leaves for the “deleted scenes” on the DVD. As an assemblage of digestible, sometimes quirky sketches about what it means to get old and how humans can avoid the usual biological pitfalls of age, “How to Live Forever” is a watchable if unremarkable 92 minutes.
DVD Video and Audio: Being that this is a digitally-shot documentary, one’s expectations for the audio-visual elements need to be kept in check. But New Video’s release is free of any egregious presentation problems and thereby does exactly what it should: allow the viewer to focus on the movie itself. The picture is bright and sharp and the sound is crystal clear.
Special Features: The primary extra on this release is a reel of “deleted scenes” that runs just over half an hour. It is made up primarily of short excerpts (1-3 minutes each) from Wexler’s longer interviews that clearly didn’t fit the flow of the finished film. There are some treats, though — especially two bits with Jonathan Gold, the brilliant LA Weekly food critic, who doesn’t really belong in the movie, but proves highly watchable in this rare appearance (his profession demands a certain incognito-ness). A few subjects that were left entirely on the cutting room floor, including a 102-year-old lady, also appear.
Movie Grade: B-
Disc Grade: B
The Verdict: Rent it