FILM REVIEW: 'Certifiably Jonathan' Mockumentary Fails to Capture Jonathan Winters' Essence

Faux documentary about the legendary comedian squanders the rich potential of its subject. 

Filmmaker Jim Pasternak's debut feature doesn't begin to inform the comedian's long-lasting success and impact.

With his debut documentary feature, filmmaker Jim Pasternak has clearly decided to attempt to emulate the free-associative, off-kilter humor pioneered by his subject, legendary comedian Jonathan Winters. Unfortunately, the mockumentary-style result proves a misshapen mess that hardly does justice to its man it purports to celebrate. Bound to disappoint diehard Winters fans while leaving the uninitiated baffled, Certifiably Jonathan doesn’t begin to fully suggest the range of the comedian’s brilliance and lasting influence.

The latter is well illustrated by the gallery of acolytes who have been enlisted to make appearances, including Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Sarah Silverman, Howie Mandel and many others. They are generally wasted here, although watching Winters and Robins, arguably his most direct comedic heir, casually riffing together is an undeniable treat.

Eschewing a standard biographical format, the film deals mainly with Winters’ current obsession with painting, with many examples of his not untalented, often humorously titled work on display. A comedic plotline of sorts is developed, with a fictional art critic (Dominic Keating) championing his work to the point that Winters is supposedly offered a gallery show at that holy grail for contemporary artists, NYC’s Museum of Modern Art, contingent on his quickly producing three more pieces. 

But when one of his cherished paintings is stolen from a gallery, the resultingly depressed Winters loses his sense of humor and is unable to paint. Attempting to help him recover are several of the aforementioned guest stars, as well as siblings Patricia and David Arquette, who conduct a mock séance.

Such faux-real awkward situations as a hostile Jeffrey Tambor rebelling against having the depressed Winters as a longtime houseguest don’t work at all, playing like poorly conceived improv sketches.

Although there are occasional clips of Winters’ groundbreaking early television appearances, useful information about his life and career are in short supply.

The main entertainment value is provided by the then 77-year-old comedian himself, who comments in alternately serious and jokey fashion about such subjects as his lifelong battle with mental illness, his marriage of more than half a century, and his current obsession with painting. Demonstrating that the years have done little to dim his ever freewheeling, manic comic sensibility, he nearly single-handedly rescues the proceedings from ineptitude.

Opens: Friday, Feb. 11 (Area 23a)
Production: FilmDada
Director/story: Jim Pasternak
Producer: Richard Marshall
Executive producer: Matt Fortnow
Director of photography: Richard Marshall
Editors: Richard Marshall, Robert Pergament
Music: Buddy Judge
No rating, 80 minutes