Sundance Review: THE UNTITLED AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY - Whatever This Is, It Is Amazing
Holy shit, I don’t even know where to begin with this one, except to say that I love it. Stick with me because this is going to sound a little confusing.
You might remember the standup comic/magician The Amazing Johnathan from back in the day. Or perhaps you saw him perform in Las Vegas at some point. With his unkept hair and trademark headband, The Amazing Johnathan used props to perform quick, hilarious illusions on stage, most of which have some abject, gory quality to them. Years ago, Johnathan was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition that gave him one year to live. Three years later, he’s somehow still alive and ready risk a return back to the stage. He also likes to smoke meth as casually as most people “take vitamins”.
That sounds like a decent setup for a typical documentary, a kind of look at the inherent sadness behind the clown’s mask. We’ve all seen them. Thank god, this is not that at all.
Telling you what it actually is, however, is not easy. You do have a sense early on that something feels very off about what you’re seeing. The film begins in a fashion you’d expect. We’re offered a brief introduction to Johnathan’s career. We meet his wife, someone you’ll want to keep an eye on throughout the film. We see him take his handfuls of medication (including the meth). We watch him visit his hometown. We hear from his mother.
And then we learn that Johnathan has hired a second, separate crew to make a documentary about him as well (a plotline with slightly more credence than likely intended thanks to the dueling Fyre docs that just came out). This crew will not let themselves be seen in the other documentary, but they are getting better access. Johnathan justifies this because, hey he’s dying, and this is the outfit that made Searching for Sugar Man and Man on Wire. They’re big time.
At this point, the focus of the documentary gradually shifts from Johnathan to Ben Berman, the doc’s director. Obviously, he has feelings about the competing documentary crew, and Johnathan doesn’t help things by passive-aggressively rubbing that conflict in his face. We stop getting interview scenes with Johnathan or learning about his tour and spend more time with Ben as he tries to make sense of all this by talking to friends and family.
It still sounds like I’m describing a thriller of some sort. But no, The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary is light and delightfully funny, from the amazing twists that populate the film to the superb one-liners supplied by support personalities and their reactions to Ben’s increasingly dire predicament. In fact, any time you think the movie is being sincere (even in a remarkable bit about the death of Ben’s mother), you’re being tricked.
Given the title subject’s profession as an illusionist, a bit of pranking is to be expected. But the levels at play here are seriously impressive. Even the way the film uses and subverts the usual documentary talking heads trope (in this case with figures like Weird Al, Eric Andre and Carrot Top) is a thing of beauty. Once the whole thing is wrapped up, the totality of the meta, fourth-wall breaking on display couldn’t be more thorough. Was the movie you just watched real? If so, how much? And does it matter?
I don’t know how you sell a movie like this. You either promote it as the standard troubled artist documentary it starts off as (but isn’t) or you have to start giving away its brilliant secrets. There are definitely people out there who will adore it, however. It’s just too good to go unseen. The only way it could be any better is if Ben Berman next adapted it into a feature film.