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A lively documentary about avoiding death

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It's a huge subject, vital to every living person in the world -- what it means to grow old and how one can cheat or at least postpone mortality.
/ Source: Reuters

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It's a huge subject, vital to every living person in the world -- what it means to grow old and how one can cheat or at least postpone mortality.

Fortunately, Mark S. Wexler eschews ponderousness in favor of a wry, observant, open-minded approach in his most informative and often quite funny documentary "How to Live Forever." You get a feeling for the film's sensibilities in that title which comes with an asterisk. The asterisk says "Results May Vary." Yes, they certainly do.

In two marvelous and very personal films, this one and "Tell Them Who You Are," a documentary about his famous cinematographer father Haskell Wexler, the filmmaker has deployed the smart tactic of seeming to make one movie while in fact making another. "Tell Them Who You Are" was less a biopic about a key Hollywood personality than a portrait of a complex and difficult father-son relationship. "How To Live Forever" is less about how to delay or defeat death than a film about what gives life meaning.

The film opens Friday in New York followed by a national expansion May 22. An even greater opportunity for a wide viewership should come in cable television and especially as a DVD that will also contain many juicy moments and interviews that Wexler was unable to cram into the theatrical version's 94 minutes, which go by in a flash.

The film is brilliantly "cast." Wexler lined up a series of sharp, funny, memorable and astute interviewees to take on all kinds of topics that deal with the aging process. A fictional filmmaker wouldn't dare put on screen a 94-year-old surgeon in the operating room or a Japanese elder-porn star or a 101-year-old chain-smoking, beer-swilling marathon runner. Not to mention the Guinness Book of World Record's expert in the world's oldest humans whose last name is ... yes, Young.

There are famous names here too: 94-year-old exercise guru Jack LaLanne (now, of course, deceased), writers Ray Bradbury and Pico Iyer, comedienne Phyllis Diller (very funny), restaurant critic Jonathan Gold (almost alarming in his appetite), actress/best-selling author Suzanne Somers and biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey.

Wexler's odyssey, spurred in part by his artist-mother's death and the arrival of his own AARP card, is to track down what lifestyle, diet or scientific/medical engineering is most likely to insure a longer life, if not eternal life. It's quickly clear though that what counts here is not how long life is but how long life is good.

This is a complex topic that opens itself up to worlds of medicine, spirituality, philosophy, exercise, cosmetics and nutrition. Wexler visit a Las Vegas convention of funereal directors and, seemingly in the next hotel, a Ms. Senior America Beauty Pageant. He settles in for a few pints in a British pub with Buster Martin, the oldest working man until he died last month at age 104 -- after a full day on the job and a couple of beers.

While the scientists talk about therapies to reprogram the body, the individuals here who have achieved old age -- by no means a representative sampling -- all seem to share a happy, positively outlook. They aren't bored for a minute but fully active and engaged with a life full of potential, not limitations.

Some of Wexler's best subjects are in Japan where elders seem downright frisky thanks to diet and activities that have nothing to do with going to gyms but simply continuing to do what they've always done as if age carries no real meaning. As LaLanne puts it earlier in the film: "The good old days are this second!"

Japan is also the site of Wexler's oddest discovery -- robotic "pets" designed to act and feel like babies. Actually those robots have to compete in oddity with the Japanese elder porn star and a tour of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation's cryonics facility where they freeze dead bodies -- always called "patients" -- with the intent to restore the deceased to good health when a cure is discovered. For a discounted fee, they will freeze only the head. Such a deal.

By letting a viewer experience the various characters and situations through his own questioning, perplexed self, Wexler keeps the mood light and the dialogue focused. Photography and editing do a first-rate job of making the movie every bit as lively as its octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians.