When you picture a Nobel Prize winner for medicine, somehow a blues harmonica-playing, Willie Nelson-adoring, longhaired Texan doesn’t immediately spring to mind, but the deservedly lauded subject of the documentary, “Jim Allison: Breakthrough,” turns out to be one impassioned iconoclast.
Spurred on by the loss of his mother to lymphoma when he was 11 years old, Allison, now 71, would graduate from making little bombs with his chemistry set to discovering the elusive T-cell receptor instrumental in using the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
Along the way, the man dubbed “the Texas T Cell Mechanic” would brush up against evolution-denying academics and Big Pharma skeptics while his dogged determination would ultimately take a personal toll on his relationship with his supportive first wife, Malinda.
For the most part, filmmaker Bill Haney keeps the med-speak to a minimum, focusing instead on Allison’s trek from Mayberry-like Alice, Tex. to Stockholm, where he shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Japan’s Tasuku Honjo for their groundbreaking cancer therapy discoveries.
With the colorful Allison — he’d fit right into one of KFC’s revolving Colonel spots — and narrator Woody Harrelson at his disposal, Haney could have easily done without all the glossy dramatic recreations and frequent shout-outs to Bristol-Myers Squibb, which occasionally create the undesirable effect of a corporate promo video.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 27, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena