‘Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary’
Playing in the U.S. Documentary competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 91 minutes. (Playing at Sundance with a 7-minute short, “Albatross Soup.”) Next screenings: Friday, Feb. 1, 8:30 p.m., The MARC Theatre, Park City.
The first rule of being a documentarian is to tell the truth — but how does the rule apply when the subject of the documentary is famous for deception? That’s the question director Ben Berman must ask, to hilarious and thought-provoking answers, in “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary.”
Johnathan Szeles, a k a The Amazing Johnathan, as anyone who watched stand-up comedy specials in the ‘90s can tell you, is a comic magician whose manic routine deflated the pretentiousness of magic acts. In 2014, he announced publicly that he had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a severe heart condition, and that he had a year to live.
Berman begins his movie three years later, with Johnathan still alive, though not entirely well. His wife, Anastasia Synn, worries for Johnathan’s poor health, exacerbated by his drug use. And now, as the film starts in 2017, Johnathan is planning to perform for the first time since his diagnosis prompted him to retire.
As Berman gets deeper into Johnatnan’s world, he find out some things that are alarming. I won’t spoil the many surprises that pop up along the way, but they combine to make Berman question whether he should be making a documentary about Johnathan — and question the lengths a documentarian should or should not go to tell the story.
Berman, whose directing credits include episodes of “Lady Dynamite” and more than half of the series “Comedy Bang! Bang!”, knows what’s funny, and the pacing and rhythms generate lots of laughs. But his exploration into Johnathan’s soul and his own also goes down some dark allieys, and cuts to the heart (no pun intended) of what makes a documentary.