It’s impossible to know for certain how Kurt Vonnegut wished to be remembered, but it’s a safe bet that it wouldn’t be for Timequake.

Even by his own free-form standards, in which fiction, memoir, and jeremiad were intermingled, Vonnegut’s 1997 novel was unusually genre-defying. Vonnegut, the author of Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions, yoked together a warmed-over science fiction satire — the central gimmick is that, in 2001, a “sudden glitch in the space-time continuum” undid the preceding decade and defaulted back to 1991 — and his own meandering chronicle of his failure to get his arms around said science fiction satire. “Vonnegut Stew” was what the New York Times called it.

Near the end of the new documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time, however, Timequake is discussed in far more favorable terms than it was at the time, a strangely contrarian perspective, but one understandable to anyone who has sat through Robert Weide's and Don Argott’s film, which IFC Films released on Nov. 19. You see, sometimes for the better and very often for the worse, Unstuck In Time is something like the Timequake of Kurt Vonnegut documentaries.

This documentary has a legendary origin story among Vonnegut devotees: In 1982, Weide, then a 23-year-old greenhorn producer and co-writer of a single documentary on the Marx Brothers, dashed off a letter to Vonnegut, whose work he had discovered and fallen for in adolescence, to propose that the two of them embark on a documentary. Vonnegut happily acquiesced. So, starting in 1988, Weide began going through the motions of the modern documentary-maker: Camera crew in tow, Weide accompanied Vonnegut to various significant spots from his past — his boyhood home, his high school, and so on — while peppering him with deep and meaningful questions.

Yet Weide, an able documentarian on the strength of later films on Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen, was never able to crack the project; changes in Vonnegut’s appearance and voice reflect what had evolved into a lengthy, intermittent, and seemingly unfocused shoot. Despite accumulating bits and pieces of material that might one day be wrested into a film, Weide let the project molder.

Perhaps Weide was so awed by Vonnegut that he buckled under the pressure to make a top-notch documentary about someone who was both a legend and, in time, a friend. Or maybe Weide had become so wrapped up in other projects — in addition to his documentaries, he wrote and produced a brilliant adaptation of Vonnegut’s Mother Night in 1996 and was the undisputed auteur of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm — that what we might call his “famous Vonnegut documentary,” like Vonnegut’s “famous Dresden book,” took a back seat. (Vonnegut referred to the long-in-progress novel that eventually became Slaughterhouse-Five as his “famous Dresden book” because he was always talking about it but never finishing it.)

By the time Vonnegut died in 2007 at age 84, Weide’s documentary existed only in his own mind and in assorted reels of film. Then, some years later, Weide joined forces with co-director Argott to whip the project into shape and, it seems, to take a page from Timequake. Yes, Unstuck In Time is a documentary about Vonnegut, and often a very good one, but it’s also a strained apologia for Weide’s long period of artistic indecision and a mawkish remembrance of the friendship between the men. “This was going to be a conventional author documentary,” Weide says on film. “I don’t even like documentaries where the filmmaker has to put himself in the film. I mean, who cares? But when you take almost 40 years to make a film, you owe some kind of an explanation.”

Or not. In fact, the original material Weide shot for the documentary is pure gold: Whether discussing the mysteries of existence (“One reason why we would like to go to Heaven is to ask somebody, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?’”) or, at a high-school reunion, commiserating with a classmate who had served in the military in China, Burma, India, and North Africa and lost an eye in the process (“They really used you, didn’t they?”), Vonnegut is in top form throughout. There are candid interviews with others, including his son Mark and his daughters Edie and Nanette; his elder brother, scientist Bernard Vonnegut; and assorted friends and colleagues, including novelist John Irving and scholar Jerome Klinkowitz.

All the key themes are explored, including the outsize influence of his elder sister and partner in sarcastic humor, Alice, his true and lasting connection with his first wife (and mother of his children), the former Jane Marie Cox, and the slow march from writing cheapo paperbacks to becoming a literary icon for the children of the ’60s and ’70s. There are many lovely moments, none more so than Edie, as a grown woman, imitating her father tap-tap-tapping at the typewriter at home.

But just as we become involved in what is an undeniably engaging account of Vonnegut’s life and work, Weide keeps popping up to keep the conceit of the documentary alive. Weide is himself an appealing presence, but does it really enhance our understanding of Vonnegut to have actor Sam Waterston read aloud Vonnegut’s correspondence with Weide? Or to hear, not once, but again and again, Vonnegut’s messages on Weide’s answering machine? Or to see a clip from Weide’s wedding video? Or to see a clip from his Emmy acceptance speech? Or to see Weide rummaging through his many VHS tapes of Vonnegut’s speeches and talks?

To be sure, there are nonfiction films that benefit from the filmmaker making himself part of the on-screen action — say, Orson Welles’s F for Fake or Michael Moore’s Roger & Me. But in this case, there’s a certain self-satisfied quality to Weide positioning himself as Vonnegut’s chief chronicler and confidant. The quoted letters and excerpted answering machine messages come across like the prized loot of a fanboy; Weide’s inclusion of them here is akin to an autograph hound displaying his collection.

What’s more, there are enough serious omissions in the final documentary to make the abundance of Weide-centric material a regrettable waste of valuable time. For example, Vonnegut’s second marriage to photojournalist Jill Krementz, with whom he adopted a daughter, Lily, and to whom he remained married at the time of his death, is only fleetingly and seemingly reluctantly referenced.

Ken Burns’s great documentaries sometimes come in for criticism for being too staid and traditional, but their rigorous focus on their actual subjects (and the exclusion of Burns’s own perspective) is welcome when compared with Weide's and Argott’s excessively personal approach. Unstuck In Time strains to make Weide’s personal history with Vonnegut as compelling as the underlying story of Vonnegut himself.

When it comes to documentaries that feature too much of their own makers, Weide himself put it best when he asked: Who cares?

Peter Tonguette is a frequent contributor to the American Conservative, National Review, and the Wall Street Journal.