The most shocking thing about Gilbert, the new film from Neil Berkeley about comedian Gilbert Gottfried, has nothing to do with explicit language or dirty jokes. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, as the first-ever look at the iconic comic’s life off stage showcases a family man living a life he never anticipated. It’s a captivating and often hilarious portrait of being that further proves you can never really know where your path might lead.
You surely know Gilbert, or at least a version of him. Younger readers may only know him as the Aflac duck or as Iago the parrot from Disney’s Aladdin, but more seasoned entertainment junkies may recall any one of his numerous film roles, television appearances and unforgettable stand up routines. In more recent years he’s also become recognized as one of the filthiest comedians in the business, a title that would have shocked even him twenty years ago, as well as a father and husband. How those two things came to pass is where the film sets its focus, with an emphasis being placed on the man who has somehow found a way to keep his private life away from the prying eyes of the media. As a result we’re able to meet the Gottfried family as they wish to be introduced, and it is every bit as charming as one might expect.
But a story about a man you think you know living a life neither he nor you anticipated wouldn’t be all that fun if the exciting, unpredictable mad man you already loved was nowhere to be found. For every gentle moment between Gilbert and his family there is a joke pulled from recent or archived performances that is guaranteed to shock. This is probably the only film in existence, documentary or otherwise, to feature a touching tribute to someone’s deceased mother just minutes after an extended bit about the extant some would go to in order to perform oral sex on Catherine Zeta Jones. Such transitions are stark, but never difficult because Berkeley finds a way to make us accept the fact nothing is off limits, thus making us comfortable with expecting the unexpected.
Documentaries about comedians tend to put their subject on pedestals, urging viewing to celebrate the genius of the comic and the ripples of brilliance they have inspired. Gilbert no doubt allows for several notable comedians to share their adoration of Gilbert Gottfried’s work, but the true purpose of the film has little to do with further celebrating a long praised comedian and much more with understanding what makes him tick. Berkeley carefully examines the dichotomy of Gottfried’s life on stage and off, as well as the many motivating factors that lead him to this point and continue to influence him to this day. Some are heartbreaking, while others are inspiring, and through it all Gottfried remains utterly unique.
The fact Gilbert manages to balance such extremes in a poignant, often moving way helps emphasize the beauty of Gottfried’s own existence. As the film retraces his bold, early days in comedy we learn of an individual who at the age of just fifteen began pouring everything he had into his craft, so much so that he himself would call it an addiction, as well as the stress that came with success. We learn Gottfried has remained close to his family since day one, but never saw himself becoming a father until presented with the news by his wife, Dara. Her presence in the film serves as a portal into the life Gottfried never knew he was working toward, as well as the way her presence – and that of their children – has impacted not only his view of the world, but of himself.
Gilbert is one of the best documentaries of this or any year in recent memory. In a world filled with ever so slight variations of stereotypes and tired tropes there is something refreshing about learning a few true originals still exist. There is and only ever will be one Gilbert Gottfried, and thanks to Neil Berkeley’s work with this absolutely enchanting film his fittingly unexpected journey will be inspiring people from all walks of life to live more on their own terms for years to come.
This film was screened as part of the 2017 Traverse City Film Festival.