To be honest, I got to review the absorbing documentary “Gilbert” because no one else wanted to. For those of you familiar with Gilbert Gottfried — from his appearances on late-night TV, from his X-rated, off-color roasts, or from his fall from grace as the Aflac spokesman — it’s probably his grating, kvetchy, high-pitched, nasal voice that comes to mind.
Before watching this film, I also thought of Gilbert as an annoying, mediocre, fingernails-on-the-chalkboard kind of comic who was odd in a way that repelled me. What director Neil Berkeley manages to accomplish in this 98-minute film, however, is rather remarkable: He humanizes Gilbert and makes him sympathetic.
The viewer gets a glimpse at 62-year-old Gilbert’s rather unassuming life, riding buses to gigs, collecting hotel toiletries, and living in a New York co-op with his smart, beautiful, loving wife and two adorable children. Gilbert also has a couple of sisters with whom he maintains close relationships and who adore him.
Further, famous comedians appear throughout the film and clearly revere Gilbert, calling him “the comics’ comic” and helping the viewer realize that Gilbert the comic and Gilbert the person are not one and the same.
The film helps us understand that Gilbert the comic most likely grew out of Gilbert the person’s insecurities and defense mechanisms and that Gilbert himself is as surprised as the rest of us that his personal life is so normal, especially in light of his quirks, the emotional torment he survived growing up, and how he imagined his life would turn out.
This is a well-crafted psychological study of how someone who doesn’t exactly fit society’s mold uses his idiosyncrasies to advance rather than retreat and, in so doing, creates a stage persona who may make audiences cringe but who beneath it all is a sweet, affable guy just doing the best he can.
Although this film may not endear Gilbert to you as much as it did for me, one thing’s for sure: It will give you pause before labeling anyone a misfit, and that alone is worth the price of admission.
(Atlanta Jewish Film Festival screening: Feb. 8, 7:20 p.m., Tara)