You may snigger at the title, but Dick Johnson Is Dead is an earnest documentary about the filmmaker's father, an 85-year-old widowed psychiatrist recently diagnosed with dementia. In order to help herself come to terms with her dad's unavoidable passing, the younger Johnson decides to stage several hilarious death scenes, in which the good-natured Dick plays himself in his own imagined demises.
Although it's an irresistible premise – indeed, it's what got me to watch the film – be advised that these phony fatalities, as well as a few beautifully-shot depictions of Dick Johnson's personal heaven, take up barely 10% of the run time. The bulk of Dick Johnson Is Dead is a leisurely, freeform documentary that often feels like a home movie.
Dick is a lovely guy, and his daughter clearly adores him, so the emotions over his unfolding losses – of independence, of memory, inevitably of life itself – are palpable. You can sympathize with the unfairness of it all. You may also find inspiration in Dick's attitude: given his vocation, he is frank, even curious, about how the disease affects his mind; given his religious convictions, he is unafraid of what awaits him. Nevertheless, I failed to connect with the film. It's intimate almost to a fault, as uninterested in probing universal truths as it is in detailing the hows and whys behind the Johnsons' kooky death scenes. I mostly felt like I was crashing the funeral, premature or otherwise, of a stranger.