Critics like to pigeonhole movies using familiar categories — fiction, nonfiction, happy, sad — but one of the charms of “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is how slippery it is. Pitched artfully between the celebratory and the elegiac, it is an inarguably serious documentary with light, surrealistic flourishes that, at times, veer into exuberant goofiness. Even at its silliest, the movie retains an undertow of melancholia because (as the title announces) it’s a death notice. It is also a love letter from a daughter to a father who, for the viewer, becomes fully human even as he fades away.
The trouble started, the director Kirsten Johnson explains, with missed appointments and mistakes. Her father, Dick, a psychiatrist and widower who lived alone in Washington, started to slip up. And then he drove through a construction site and kept on going, making it home on four flat tires. His worried friends and colleagues alerted Johnson and her brother. “Every call,” she says in voice-over, “felt like an alarm bell.”
When the documentary opens, father and daughter have already come to an understanding. He will move into her New York apartment, and the two of them, rather more unusually, will make a movie about his dying, partly by enacting it. What made Dick sign on? He seems like a supremely loving, indulgent father, but when he agreed to make this movie did he fully grasp the situation? The possibility that he didn’t is both painful and ethically murky, which strengthens the movie’s complexity.
Kirsten doesn’t offer much of an answer other than “he said yes,” though the movie’s very existence, you come to understand, explains plenty. Not long after, an air-conditioner is falling out of a high window and landing on Dick, splat. Like the serially unlucky Wile E. Coyote, though, he is soon back on his feet and smiling into the next scene, the next fantasy. The Oedipal overtones are strong (and Dad is a shrink), but Johnson doesn’t put either of them on the couch (maybe because Dad is a shrink).