What is the sum worth of a man or woman’s life? In word-count terms, that’s a question dealt with every day by the subjects of “Obit.,” who comprise the New York Times’ obituary department — one of the last surviving extensive operations in the publishing world devoted to their particular task. Entertaining if a bit conventional in its anecdotal structure and slightly cutesy tone, these 95 minutes should appeal to the same public that happily spends half the day reading the Sunday Times, and which will enjoy a polite peek behind the Gray Lady’s operational curtain.
Though they admit the job does keep mortality on their minds, the Times’ obit crew rarely finds it depressing. As Margalit Fox puts it, “We’re usually writing about someone who’s died in his or her 80s or 90s after living a long, rich, creative, fulfilling life. … In an obit of 800 words, maybe a sentence will be about the death. The other 90% is about the life.” By all evidence it’s a researcher’s dream, as staffers usually must start from scratch to become knowledgeable about some arcane profession, invention or other achievement — whatever significant impact made the deceased worthy of a Times obit — just a few hours before deadline.
The diversity of their subjects is illustrated by short sketches (with archival footage and photos): There’s the guy who invented the Slinky; an amateur tinkerer whose ingenuity saved 1970s U.S. space station Skylab; pioneering rocker Bill Haley’s bassist; a longterm Catskills resort maitre d’ famed for his matchmaking skills; Joseph Stalin’s only (acknowledged) daughter; and the unassuming ordinary fella whom fate chose to drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima.
Of course, people of more widespread, lasting fame usually have considerable info already on file, often compiled into “advances” prepared in anticipation of an eventual obit. But when a celebrity abruptly dies in the prime of life, as with author David Foster Wallace or pop superstar Michael Jackson, the department must scramble; the Times had less than four hours to cobble together multiple tributes in the case of Jackson’s unanticipated demise.
Apart from the somewhat florid Fox, who particularly relishes the fact that the Times now encourages more “writerly” prose in what used to be a rigidly formulaic section, the film’s personalities are relatively low-key. Few if any originally intended to land in a department outsiders tend to view as “one step away from an undertaker’s job.”
Director Vanessa Gould oddly refrains from exploring the one area that must take an emotional toll on staff members: Having to routinely call grieving relatives and pump them for information, including cause-of-death details. She also touches just briefly on the blowback writers get when they have to include unflattering material (scandals, criminal convictions, etc.) about a subject, or discover facts that expose the myth of a loved one’s supposed moment of glory.
Gould’s prior directorial feature, “Between the Folds” (2008), centered on another outwardly eccentric professional (pre-)occupation: artists and scientists who make use of origami in their work. The tone of “Obit.” has a similar slightly twee mix of awe and amusement that risks banality at times, including the way Gould presents Jeff Roth, the vast Times clip-file “morgue” overseer, and tries to force his lively, garrulous personality into an eccentric comedy-relief role.
If, overall, “Obit” is merely pleasant in a predictable, innocuous way, it’s nonetheless well-crafted and moderately educational. Times staffers note that they often get criticized for not including enough women and minorities among the obits, but add that until the 1960s, societal norms ensured that most figures of prominence and achievement were white men. Only now is mortality fully catching up with the generations that launched Civil Rights, Women’s Lib and other movements — making death the agent of diversity, at least where prominent newspaper obituaries are concerned.