Sketches of Frank Gehry

If this documentary looks like something you'd see on PBS, that's because it is something you'd see on PBS: Sketches of Frank Gehry is an American Masters production that surprisingly got a theatrical release by Sony Pictures Classics.

While I agree that Gehry, who in recent years has become the most famous architect in the United States, deserves the big-screen treatment for his often breathtaking buildings, this film about his life and work – made by Gehry's old pal, Hollywood hack Sydney Pollack, attempting his first documentary – still feels minor. Then again, Gehry comes across as such an ordinary Joe that perhaps Pollack's chummy, relaxed approach is fitting.

But while Pollack's close friendship with his subject is doubtlessly why Gehry opens up so easily on screen, the director wrongly assumes that viewers know as much about Gehry as he does. So while he asks the architect some probing questions, his film glosses over much of Gehry's life. Gehry's spectacular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain is what finally made him a household name in 1997 – at the tender age of 68! Yet despite the decades that led up to that creation, we see only glimpses – "sketches", if you will – of Gehry's earlier life and work. Admittedly, while Gehry gives off the impression that he'd be happy to talk about nearly anything, there's probably only so much Pollack could fit in.

Nevertheless, although we're treated to some loving montages of Gehry's Bilbao masterpiece (as well as its equal, 2003's Disney Hall in Los Angeles), there's no explanation as to why his devoted wife Berta doesn't appear in the film. Also, disappointingly, most of the talking head interviews are not with fellow architects but with rich old Hollywood players like Mike Ovitz, Barry Diller, and Michael Eisner. These guys reflect Pollack's privileged world more than they do Gehry's, and they can only really speak as clients and dilettantes. And while Pollack picks one fey academic to speak on behalf of the anti-Gehry camp, his film is otherwise a love letter to his talented friend.

But as even some of Gehry's biggest fans concede that a few of his buildings are "failures" – a couple are downright ugly – the film doesn't examine what works and what doesn't. I would have liked to have seen more on this, as it would seem that Gehry himself would be open to the criticism. (Mainly I'd like to know why he went forward with his hideous design for Seattle's Experience Music Project; it's not discussed in the film, merely shot in abstract closeups to hide the fact that the building's an eyesore.)

Still, for fans of Gehry and his work, this doc does provide some insight into his creative process, and argues that the man behind some of the world's wildest and most exotic buildings is just your good ol' Uncle Frank.