We’ve had plenty of time, thanks to the many scenes that precede it in “Last Flight Home,” to get used to the idea of how Eli Timoner plans to shake off this mortal coil. But a line, casually spoken by his rabbi daughter, still packs a gentle jolt.
“Daddy, on March 3, when you die…”
Documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner’s latest film — after works on controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe (“Mapplethorpe), gadfly comic Russell Brand (“Brand: A Second Coming”) and the musical era that the Dandy Warhols came out of (“Dig!”) — is a 100 minute home movie, Watching Daddy Die.
It’s an idealized depiction of what “death with dignity” can look like in a culture where that’s still a rare gift. Timoner, her siblings, nieces and nephews and mother, all talk to and comfort patriarch Eli Timoner as he resolves to make the March of his 92nd year his last one.
Timoner tells his daughter “I’m just waiting to die” when she calls. He tells others, including his future widow, “I just want to be in the ground…Are we gonna end it today?”
They don’t push back. They know he’s been miserable, a very successful man who ran one big and two huge businesses who then spent the last 40 years of his life paralyzed by a stroke, so he’ll need help, which is allowed in California, where he lives. When he says “I want it to end,” his rabbi daughter takes it seriously.
“If you’re saying this is what you want, we’re all behind you.”
“Last Flight Home” is a film of reminiscing phone calls and tearful final farewells, a story of preparations for the end and a celebration of a big life that shrank, and the “shame” the man who lived it felt about that.
It’s sometimes moving and sometimes simply indulgent. Because it takes some effort for anybody to see this privileged exit as something “universal” that could be replicated in their own lives, with their own loved-ones. Timoner’s film can feel like a too-rich-for-my-blood/too-intimate-to-relate-to home movie at its worst, an affectionate tribute and curtain call for a life well-lived at its best.
A phone call from talk show hostess Rachel Maddow? Not something every fan gets when he’s about to end his life.
And it isn’t every clan that gets to hear the “shame” their patriarch carries to his grave, that he didn’t sell some stock when his first hugely succession company went public,” $40 million pissed away,” Eli mutters on his deathbed.
That was for the huge Florida-based roofing concern that he took national, his second great business success.
“Last Flight Home” takes its title from Eli Timoner’s most famous company, Air Florida. When Ondi asks Eli for a list of “people you want to say ‘good-bye to,'” a lot of the Zoom calls are with pilots and other employees of that “world’s fastest growing airline,” a late 1970s phenomenon made possible by airline deregulation.
It also points to a major omission in “Last Flight.” Eli Timoner had his stroke (his wife blames a “neck crack” during a massage) six months after the infamous Air Florida crash into the Potomac in Washington, D.C. in 1982. He was forced out of the airline after the stroke, “disability discrimination” Eli says and his family agrees. But the airline was gone within two years of that brand-killing disaster, and it’s absurd and dishonest to leave out something much more likely to lead to his ouster and for that matter, to his debilitating stroke — stress, and “guilt,” whether warranted or not.
And seeing that left out makes you wonder what other sops to “hagiography” Ondi Timoner made, omitted and embellished?
Any documentary that points to a way out of the agonizing, expensive, life-extending trap of “The American Way of Death” is worth a look. This one, affectionate and atypical, poignant and privileged, grates almost as often as it moves.
It’s not every end-of-life film that makes you envious of the way this family produces, edits and choreographs that finale, seemingly by design.
Rating: unrated, some off-color humor
Cast: Eli Timoner, Ondi Timoner, many others
Credits: Scripted and directed by Ondi Timoner. An MTV Films release.
Running time: 1:41