It used to be more pronounced, back when The Villages was a smaller, more compact enterprise. But the overwhelming first impression driving in is still very Patrick McGoohanish.
As in, “The Prisoner.” As in “I am NOT a number, I am a FREE man!”
The Mission style Disney-ish architecture, the sea of cute customized golf carts, the smiling, busily recreating monocultural demographics (almost all white, old)–“brain washed” crosses the mind.
I used to visit the first movie theater there (there are others, now) and marveled at how artificially spotless it all was. The cinema’s prices were set low. Coffee was just 10 cents a cup back when America’s largest retirement community was still trying to lure The Greatest Generation to settle there (founded in the ’80s, booming by the late ’90s), what these seniors had paid for it back in their younger days
In this “bubble” another America, preserved in amber, seemed and seems to live on.
Filmmaker Lance Oppenheim’s “Some Kind of Heaven” doesn’t dive into the most famous pieces of The Villages’ lore — the lack of diversity, the somewhat more diverse and poorer work force that keeps it humming, the rumors of venereal disease spikes due to the “swinging” seniors, the monolithic right wing politics.
Oppenheim, plainly-influenced by the films of Errol Morris, centers on “the dream” that this “heaven on Earth” has sold to some 130,000 residents and how that’s worked out for a select few. It’s a fair-minded and fascinating sample of the populace that he examines, lives that have their share of trials amid all the dance classes, pickleball groups, Parrothead clubs and golfing.
And if their stories play out in wistful shades of twilight, that feels accurate, too.
Barbara came down from Boston with her husband. Then he died, “the money ran out” and she went back to work — booking physical therapists and home care for residents for a health care center. She’s just starting to think about dating again, something a community with 20,000 single seniors wealthy enough to live there is totally set up for.
Dennis is a more piquant case. He’s a well-preserved Californian, a free-spirit musician and former Palm Springs “handyman.” He’s living in his small van and “looking for a wealthy woman,” preferably “good looking,” somebody he can date, move in with and be company for in their twilight years. He’s tried the churches and the bars, but “the pool” is where the action is, he says.
And Anne and Reggie are long-marrieds who have settled into the lifestyle, or rather she has — socially active, playing pickleball with new friends. Reggie admits to feeling left out and a little lonely, and to dabbling in recreational drugs along with his own perhaps self-designed (yoga-ish) exercise regimen.
Reggie is given to announcing he’s “reincarnated” to Anne, and talking about his other new “hobbies” on his Youtube vlog. Anne is mortified.
Over the course of the film, those profiled are lightly tested by the lives they’ve bought into, or in Dennis’s case, that he wants to mooch onto.
I like the resident who describes the place as “like going off to college. Everybody can be what they want to be here.” Acting classes, joining a Polynesian-style (big canoe) rowing team, everything people with money and time they never had can indulge in is offered, along with the chance for one last reinvention, just like the one most college kids take a stab at.
There’s little criticism of the place, per se — just a few smirks at the Disney-styled “made up history” that went into planning the familiar looking Main Street business district, Mission style highway overpass and the like.
Some of that intellectual/architectural “story” cohesion has been abandoned in recent years as development has exploded. We meet founder Harold Schwartz’s son, Gary Morse, but as I mentioned, there’s no discussion of Morse’s political “kingmaker” machinations.
As residents listen to “final arrangements” pitches in the Ruby Tuesday’s or pick out a sweet new ride at a golf cart dealership, you can think that it’s a shame that all retirees can’t have this stimulating, social and pleasant version of their last active years. But we don’t have to be reminded “It’s not cheap.”
Oppenheim’s film is its own bubble, in that way. There’s barely a hint of what’s “beyond” this life and this insular world. He frames his deadpan camera shots like the Oscar-winning Errol Morris, but the visual whimsy is as far as that extends. There are more serious issues — having enough money for retirement — hinted at but not really addressed.
For all the promise of a “New York Times Presents” documentary, “Heaven” isn’t exactly an infomercial, but it’s not much deeper than that.
Yet there’s humor to Dennis’s mercenary flirtations, pathos to Barbara’s loneliness and a sad comedy even to Reggie’s “adventures,” which can feel like we’re watching some sort of late-life breakdown.
You come away from the film feeling that its Disney touches might be a great way to spend your twilight years, turning you into what the locals call “a frog. Here till I croak!” Or you can look at all this almost manic organized “activity,” designed to keep everybody social, “happy” and as the word implies, “active,” is something you’d quickly want to escape.
Just like that “prisoner” in that other “village.”
MPA Rating: unrated, drug abuse, some profanity
Cast: Barbara Lochiatto, Anne and Reggie Kincer, Dennis Dean
Credits: Directed by Lance Oppenheim. A New York Times film, a Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:23