Remembering Gene Wilder Review | Lacking Pure Imagination

by Andrew Parker

Remembering Gene Wilder is the sort of easy going memorial documentary that makes for decent enough comfort viewing. There’s nothing very challenging about filmmaker Ron Frank’s look back at the life and career of comic acting and writing genius Gene Wilder that can’t be gleaned from other more wide ranging sources, but it plays most of the hits in expected fashion. Remembering Gene Wilder is lacking in overall depth and scope, but in terms of encapsulating what made the film’s subject such an endearing and enduring presence, it’s okay for those who don’t want more from a biopic than the obvious.

Born Jerry Silverman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Wilder started off as a stage actor until a chance encounter with playwright, filmmaker and life long friend Mel Brooks changed the trajectory of his career. From The Producers to Blazing Saddles to Young Frankenstein, Wilder and Brooks collaborated on some of the most iconic comedies ever made. Wilder’s performance as candy maven and madman Willy Wonka will forever resonate with scores of viewers young and old, and he established another memorable on screen tandem with Richard Pryor that resulted in another string of hits.

But if a viewer is interested in seeing Remembering Gene Wilder, they probably knew all of that already. Frank’s film would only be revelatory to anyone who has never seen or heard of Wilder before. Through competently conducted, mostly softball sit down interviews with friends, family, admirers, and collaborators, Remembering Gene Wilder weaves together a collection of anecdotes that are endearing and likeable, but also exactly what viewers probably expect. While a lot of the interview subjects share fond remembrances – with Brooks, in particular, capable of filling out an entire film devoted to Wilder on his own without any help – there’s hardly a discouraging or controversial word to be heard outside of noting how sad it was to see Gene’s sharp wit and intellect cut down towards the end of his life due to Alzheimer’s Disease. As a memorial, that works because this is the kind of thing one would want to hear at their own funeral, but as a film, there’s something decidedly lacking.

There’s also a curious lack of discussion when it comes to Wilder’s relationship to former wife Gilda Radner and his sometimes bristly professional partnership with Pryor. Of the latter, there’s footage of Wilder admitting that once the cameras stopped rolling, he never really hung out with Pryor, and he tells a nice story about how meaningful it was to make See No Evil, Hear No Evil, which was shot right around the time Pryor got his Parkinson’s diagnosis. But that’s about it. 

As for the former, Wilder’s noted relationship to fellow comic Radner is given a mere handful of minutes, like their love and struggles are incidental to everything else. That feels like a misstep, and at times almost like the film wants to put Radner down, going out of its way at some points to say that Wilder’s post-Radner life was the happiest he ever was. Anyone who has seen or read anything about their relationship will be taken aback by just how little it is mentioned here. At least there’s some great footage and recollections about how much Gene cared for Gilda that can be found in other places. You just won’t find that here.

Remembering Gene Wilder isn’t a terrible documentary, but also not much of a film. It’s not much more than an extended clip show tribute, and if that’s all you want, that’s all you’re going to get. It’s not deep or all that satisfying, but it gets the job done.

Remembering Gene Wilder opens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Friday, April 5, 2024.

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