Death, or the specter of it, is a key supporting player in “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” a warm, wonderfully wry look at people who have stayed active and vital into their 90s. Amid a sea of depressing documentaries, this uplifting film hosted by 95-year-old Carl Reiner should put extra pep into anyone’s step.
The title is derived from Reiner, the comedy maven and raconteur, who relates a story about seeing himself featured in someone else’s obituary. The premise, simply enough, is to talk to fellow nonagenarians and a few centenarians (Kirk Douglas among them), asking what keeps them going and seeking clues to their longevity.
Director Danny Gold also includes a specialist in aging, Dan Buettner, who counsels people to “do what you love and do it every day,” while discussing common threads associated with maintaining health and vitality. Jerry Seinfeld also shares his observations, mostly because his manager and Reiner’s nephew, George Shapiro, produced it.
The real pleasure, however, comes in hearing the interviewees hold forth, talking frankly about how they feel physically and mentally, as well as expressing their thoughts regarding how the world looks at the elderly.
The participants skew toward the arts and entertainment, including Reiner’s great friend and “2000 Year Old Man” partner, Mel Brooks; actress Betty White; legendary producer Norman Lear; and Dick Van Dyke, who starred in Reiner’s “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” looks as if he hasn’t lost a step and is married to a woman less than half his age.
Given the temptation to paint their cohort as doddering, it’s bracing to see Van Dyke lithely dance as if “Mary Poppins” was only yesterday, or hear Marvel Comics patriarch Stan Lee reminisce about his World War II service (he wrote a marching song to inspire those charged with paying the troops) with absolute clarity.
Perhaps inevitably, a few of those featured – including “Picket Fences” co-star Fyvush Finkel – have died since filming took place. Having seen contemporaries die, most of those interviewed speak about mortality in a manner that younger people seldom do.
Far from being maudlin, though, the main sensation is enormously life-affirming and even poignant, given how society in general – and the media culture in particular – tends to discount those who have graduated beyond the most desirable demographics.
The documentary’s subjects offer various theories about why they’re still around, but Reiner, Brooks and Lear – who, along with Van Dyke, took part in a riotous HBO panel celebrating the film’s premiere – place an emphasis on laughter, something they demonstrate an ability to still provide in abundance. “If you can’t laugh, life would be pretty empty,” Reiner says.
Whether that prescription actually works might be unproven, but if it’s even half-true, watching “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” ought to be worth at least a few more good years.
“If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” premieres June 5 at 8 p.m. on HBO.