Remembering Gene Wilder (2024)

Wilder documentary is barely worth ‘Remembering’

For about 45 minutes, “Remembering Gene Wilder” is an absorbing chronicle of a comedic actor who was arguably one of the most iconic stars of the 1970s. From “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” to “Blazing Saddles” to “Young Frankenstein” to “Silver Streak,” Wilder apparently could do no wrong. Then, at the flick of a switch, he began manufacturing more atomic bombs than Lockheed Martin.

Instead of addressing that long period of decline with honesty and sincerity, director Ron Frank opts to dramatically fudge the facts, suggesting that there was never a severe drop-off in quality and box office appeal. If his narrative is to be believed, clunkers like “The World’s Greatest Lover,” “Frisco Kid” and “Hanky Panky” were every bit the equal of classics like “The Producers.” But they were not. And that becomes evident when the time line extends into the late 1970s and the array of outtakes culled from Wilder’s many movies stop being laugh-out-loud funny.

Nor does Frank’s blatant hagiography confront the obvious question: Why did Wilder (né Jerome Silberman) stop working side by side with his meal ticket, Mel Brooks? Frank does sit the legend down to reflect on his collaborations with Wilder, but never asks him why both of their careers abruptly went south after they split up. The only time it’s remotely mentioned is when Brooks volunteers how much he misses watching Wilder react to his jokes by “clutching his stomach and rolling around on the floor.”

Adding to his film’s back-nine flaws is the short shrift Frank gives Wilder’s alleged storybook romance with the doomed Gilda Radner. For decades, we’ve been told how devastated Wilder was over losing the love of his life. But you’d never know that, given Frank’s scant attention to the loss, choosing instead to bombard us with more and more scenes from the likes of “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.”

Heck, Radner doesn’t even rate half the screen time allotted Wilder’s second wife, Karen Boyer, whose remembrances are pedestrian at best. But she is affective when describing her husband’s slow decline after being diagnosed in 2013 with Alzheimer’s, the disease that ended his life three years later at the age of 83. You feel her loss, as you do with Brooks, who admits to being “inconsolable” for weeks after his pal’s passing. But why are these genuine displays of emotion absent from the rest of the picture?

Such shortcomings pretty much limit “Remembering Gene Wilder” to a curiosity that will appeal exclusively to hardcore fans, of which I’m one. And as a product of the 1970s who grew up religiously attending Wilder films with my best friends, it’s a treat revisiting the likes of “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.”

Wilder, heard via clips from the audio rendition of his autobiography, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love,” proclaims the latter his finest film, a shoot he never wanted to end because he so loved spending hours and hours sharing scenes with the likes of Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Peter Boyle, Gene Hackman, Madeline Kahn and most of all, Marty Feldman.

It was certainly a pinnacle for Wilder, who earned an Oscar nomination for the brilliant script he co-wrote with Brooks. This was Wilder’s first foray into writing and you wonder if the success of “Young Frankenstein” placed undue burden on him to top it, which he never did. Not even close. But what a legacy. I teared up listening to Brooks discuss their masterwork and how he clashed with studio heads over his insistence on shooting the film in black and white, and later with Wilder himself over whether to include the classic “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene with Boyle, hilarious as Frankenstein’s monster with the “Abby Normal” brain.

That stuff is fabulous and makes “Remembering Gene Wilder” well worth your time. But rather than fawning tributes from Harry Connick Jr., Alan Alda and TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, a trio that had little if any connection to Wilder, it would have been far more fascinating to have taken a deeper dive with the guy who knew Wilder best, Mel Brooks. In fact, how great would “Remembering” be if it had focused exclusively on the Brooks-Wilder partnership? One can only wish.

Movie review

Remembering Gene Wilder

Rated: Not rated

Featuring: Gene Wilder, Mel Brooks, Alan Alda, Carol Kane and Karen Boyer

Director: Ron Frank

Writer: Glenn Kirschbaum

Runtime: 92 minutes

Where: In theaters before streaming April 30

Grade: B-

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