It’s the Gilda Radner grin that really gets you — always radiant, sometimes childishly goofy, occasionally maniacal. You see it a lot in Love, Gilda, the documentary on the late Saturday Night Live star. There it is, in snapshots of her as chubby kid in Detroit and as a teenager at the all-girls school where she discovered theater. It shows up in her early days at Toronto — she followed a sculptor who she was in love with there — when she fell in with the Second City crowd, and her first move to New York, where she joined the National Lampoon troupe. In old footage, it’s lighting up Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller and the theater on Broadway where she staged her one-woman show. Watch it beam out of pictures of Radner cuddled next to her second husband Gene Wilder. And she’s deploying that same come-on-get-happy look in post-chemotherapy shots, looking wan but still showing her pearly whites for the camera, as she dealt with cancer in the last few years of her life.
The chance to spend more time with Gilda and that infectious ear-to-ear smile is the main reason to check out Lisa D’Apolito’s portrait of the woman who was the first lady of SNL; it’s best to think of this frustratingly superficial, often stock doc as a clips montage with benefits. Yes, you get audio of Radner narrating her career highs and personal lows via recordings of her autobiography It’s Always Something. Famous fans like Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and Melissa McCarthy read portions of her diary aloud, while old collaborators like Martin Short, Paul Shaffer and Alan Zweibel attest to her kindness, her brilliance, her insecurities. Comedy nerds will swoon over snippets of the legendary 1972 production of Godspell that incubated a who’s who of future funny-business greats and the behind-the-scenes Lampoon radio hour recordings. If you ever needed a reminder of how groundbreaking and gut-busting her tenure was on Saturday Night Live, there are enough reprises of her famous characters and sketches to jostle your memory. Here was someone who thrived in the hothouse, let’s-put-on-a-show environment that nurtured the original Not Ready for Primetime Players, a stage where she could match John Belushi’s “kamikaze comedy” beat for gonzo beat or quietly break your heart.
In terms of both professional best-of moments and personal artifacts (home movies, old pics, those journals and cassette recordings), the filmmaker has a treasure trove at her fingertips; she just doesn’t seem to know how to shape much of it, or how to mine it for more than checkpoints and pop-psychological carping about comedy and pain. The tears-of-a-clown analysis is laid on in thick gloops, and while you can’t deny Radner used humor as a salve and a defense mechanism — funny is “saying the truth before the other guy does,” the star declares via voiceover; she also talks of slipping into character when she’s lonely — the approach simply reduces a complex artist to a case study. (The movie’s score, which runs the gamut from maudlin to generic whimsical, adds nothing but subtracts a lot of good will.) Even with what feels like an all-access pass, Love, Gilda feels as if it’s barely caressed the surface, much less scratched it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. You’ll leave still loving Gilda. The movie, not so much.