best docs 2017 : If You're Not In the Obit, Eat Breakfast

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‘If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast’ explores the secret of vitality after 90

Betty White, Stan Lee, and Carl Reiner are still working it.


David Wharton


Published Jun 7, 2017   Updated May 23, 2021, 3:55 am CDT

The new HBO documentary If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast opens with comic legend Carl Reiner doing just that—only to find that he is in the obits. Reiner reenacts the time he took the surreal turn of finding his own face smiling back at him from an obituary blurb. After a moment’s panic, he realized that the obituary was for singer and actress Polly Bergen, who had passed away at age 84. Apparently not able to find a good headshot of the actress, the paper had instead run a picture of her alongside a young Reiner. It’s a good picture, but it damn near killed Reiner before he even finished his coffee.

Reiner uses this story—and the running joke he adapted from it, which gives the film its name—as a launching-off point for an exploration of the secrets to living a full and active life after age 90. As Reiner explains, he’s lucky enough to still have quite a few longtime friends who are not only still kicking, but thriving, proving to be as productive, if not more, as they were in earlier decades. Reiner himself is a shining example of this. With a long, acclaimed career that includes nine Emmys, a Grammy, and creating The Dick Van Dyke Show, nobody would blame the guy if he wanted to just relax and play shuffleboard until the lights go out. Instead, he’s published over a half dozen books since his 90th birthday in 2012.  

The film could easily just focus on Reiner, but “one” isn’t a great sample size when you’re seeking the secrets of nonagenarian vitality. So he first turns to some of his closest, and oldest, friends. Throughout If You’re Not in the Obit, Reiner sits down with 90-plus celebs such as Mel Brooks (90), Norman Lear (94), Betty White (95), Dick Van Dyke (91), and Stan Lee (94), swapping fond memories, old stories, and their own perspectives on what it takes to continue thriving at an age when society is kind of surprised that you’re still around. Each offers their own unique insights, but all of the advice can perhaps best be summed up by the title of Van Dyke’s 2015 book: Keep Moving.

Again, the documentary would have plenty of meat on its bones just interviewing these famous personalities, each of whom have stories enough to make this a miniseries. But director Danny Gold smartly casts his net wider. Mixed in with the well-known Hollywood faces are folks who’ve never graced the pages of Variety—average people now exploring their ninth decades with vigor and enthusiasm.

There’s the former paratrooper who’s still leaping out of planes all these years later. A yoga teacher who’s older than most of her students’ grandparents. The bloke who found a harmonica on a street curb at age 10 and went on to become one of the best harmonica players in the world. You don’t get to 90 without learning a few things and accumulating amazing stories, and If You’re Not in the Obit definitely benefits from including these people alongside the likes of Lee and White. I could listen to Brooks tell stories all day long, but some of this film’s sweetest and most insightful moments come from the people we haven’t been watching on-screen for 70 years.

If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast is charming, bittersweet, and damned inspiring. It’s also a serious kick in the pants for any of us not currently in our 90s. Reiner has written more books in his ninth decade than some professional authors write in their entire lives. What excuse have the rest of us got not to finish that novel you’ve been pecking at for years? Or take up that hobby you’ve always wanted to try? If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast serves as a reminder that life is fleeting and precious… but it’s also not over until it’s over. Every last moment is what you make of it, so why not make it something grand?

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*First Published: Jun 7, 2017, 2:28 pm CDT