Few people can claim to have read their way through the crowded text on one of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap bottles, beloved of hippies and world travelers for its 18 uses (hair! skin! clothes!) and peppermint sting. But most of us have wondered about the writer who praised God, Hillel, and Mark Spitz in 8-point type. Sara Lamm's funny, loosely structured documentary traces Emmanuel Bronner's life story through archival footage of Bronner, who died in 1998, and contemporary interviews of those who now run his multimillion-dollar family business. A seventh-generation soapmaker who emigrated to the United States from Germany in the 1920s, Bronner started calling himself a doctor sometime between the end of World War II—when most of his family died in the camps—and his escape from an Illinois mental hospital in the 1950s. After making his way to California, the good doctor concocted liquid soap in order to convince the world to read his "Moral ABCs." The star of the film is not the always-ranting Dr. Bronner but his elder son, Ralph, who seems to consider the family patriarch an eccentric genius. Comfortable in his dottiness, Ralph now shares his father's "All-One!" philosophy with everyone he encounters through pamphlets, free bottles of soap, and hugs. What keeps this movie from being a kitschy profile is that Lamm refuses to sentimentalize a man who could found a business that promotes fair labor practices and ecological sustainability yet abandon his young children to orphanages in his quest to save "Spaceship Planet Earth."
The doctor remains enigmatic to the end.
Runs at Grand Illusion, Fri., Aug. 17–Thurs., Aug. 23. Not rated. 87 minutes.