The first half of George Carlin’s American Dream is a history lesson. Big history and little history; it’s the history of comedy in the second half of the twentieth century; it’s the story of Carlin and his family. It’s the story of his career and how success changed his life; how some things got better, then new things got worse. It’s fascinating and humanizing.
The second half is about directors Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio trying to figure out how they can work in sensational footage from twelve years after Carlin died. They try to tie it in with interviewee Paul Provenza talking about how people wished Carlin were around to comment on the dumpster fire the world’s become since he’s left. But it was always that dumpster fire; we just didn’t have it on video. Carlin in the smartphone era would have been more interesting than a poorly cut montage—Joe Beshenkovsky does a fine job throughout the three-and-a-half-hour documentary, but when they ask him to ape The Parallax View, Beshenkovsky flops.
It’s not all his fault; I’m sure he didn’t pick the Carlin material to accompany the visuals, but the cutting’s not good. The material selection and the piece in general—only a few years after Spike Lee did it earnestly and sincerely in BlacKkKlansman—is a lousy finish for American Dream. The second half is rocky overall; the landing is bad; if it weren’t for interviewee (and daughter) Kelly Carlin, they’d have sunk it. It’s a bad idea, drawn-out, coming at the end of a half-assed conclusion.
Because the second half of American Dream starts with the promise of Ronald Reagan’s presidency fucking with Carlin’s mojo just when he was determined to prove everyone wrong. According to the doc, nothing worked out for Carlin during the Reagan years. He was too busy working to pay off the IRS. So, creatively, he kept hitting snooze.
Except… he didn’t. He started his HBO specials, did “Comic Relief,” and apparently changed his entire professional perspective because of Sam Kinison (or so Dream tries to imply). The first half gets Carlin through high school dropout, radio DJ, traditional stand-up comic, mainstream TV guy, seventies counter-culture sensation, pseudo-has been, coke fiend, wife’s alcoholism, fatherhood, comeback precipice.
Only nope, the comeback would take fourteen years. Per Dream, even though in between Carlin was in Bill and Ted, for example. The movie’s something the documentary doesn’t address until—it’s got a linear structure, which is problematic anyway—but it doesn’t address his casting until it’s covering years later.
It also buries some ledes later when it presents Dogma as being about Carlin, the ex-Catholic; though the doc does not use much of that footage—and never points out Carlin was right about the priests raping kids, probably because it’d piss off useless, pearl-clutching interviewee Stephen Colbert. Then it talks about Dogma as Carlin’s mourning picture; his wife died just before filming. But then it reveals it’s actually about Carlin meeting his second wife. After spending the almost two-hour first half showing its subject’s facets and collisions… the second half goes for easy manipulation. Apatow and Bonfiglio half-ass the finish, but there’s probably no way not to half-ass it since they’re covering thirty years in less time. Plus they need their five-minute “America sucks, subscribe to HBO Max and rebel” commercial.
Carlin, of course, deserves better. American Dream does an all right job showcasing old material, though nowhere near as much as you’d think. It doesn’t discuss the popularity of the HBO specials after the first one, doesn’t discuss his wife producing them (after making a big deal out of her feeling left out during the events in the first half, it leaves her out of the second). The second half feels like parts two and three, and the epilogue abridged. It’s a shame.
Hopefully, it’ll get more people to watch more George Carlin. But not, oddly enough, on HBO Max.