'Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A mixed-bag exploration of a filmmaking nightmare.

Magic-comedy star The Amazing Johnathan performs his final shows in Ben Berman's doc — or does he?

A film about filmmaking in which a TV-comedy vet gets in over his head making his first documentary, Ben Berman's Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary offers a helpful reminder to aspiring doc-makers out there: There's more to the job than just following someone around with a camera. Setting out to film what he expects to be the final shows of an ailing Las Vegas comedy-magician, Berman gets both more and less than he bargained for. Likely to inspire heated arguments about the ethics of nonfiction film, the diverting but not really satisfying pic makes weak lemonade from lemons that might have yielded something tastier.

Knowing what's to come, Berman blazes through exposition that will be expected by viewers who aren't quite sure they remember The Amazing Johnathan, or ever knew him in the first place. John Szeles is a prop-comedy guy who uses sleight-of-hand to make audiences think he's sawing off a limb or poking holes in his tongue; one clip here finds him interrupting a card trick to snort a jar full of "magic dust." It's perfect lowbrow, high-energy Las Vegas stuff, and for years, Johnathan was a year-round attraction there.

Then he was diagnosed with an uncommon heart problem known as cardiomyopathy. The film's title cards imply that this in itself is a death sentence. Viewers whose loved ones suffer from it will know better; but in Johnathan's case, we're told he was given a year to live. Three years later, he's still alive, and Berman's filmmaking project begins. (Berman also says the diagnosis came in 2014, but coverage in the Las Vegas Review-Journal makes it clear he had struggled with the disease for years by that point.)

Berman visits the big house Szeles shares with wife Anastasia Synn, loitering through their days in the early retirement of a man who is supposed to be dead. They complain of having nothing to do, and we eventually come to understand that Szeles intends to break the monotony by staging a comeback "farewell tour." It's either that, or sit around the house smoking meth all day. (Szeles is frank about his 20-year cocaine habit and the new substance that has replaced it, claiming to take the drug "like vitamins" and not to even get high from it anymore. Synn wishes he would stop.)

Just as the tour is getting going, Szeles drops a bigger bomb on Berman, one that throws the whole project into question. Since the movie depends on its surprises, let's not go into detail. But Berman soon finds himself unsure if he can or should continue, and as things get thornier, he wonders if the illusionist's illness is some sort of Andy Kaufman-style hoax. Relations between the filmmaker and his subject sour, and the doc suggests Berman endures a months-long personal crisis or two.

Here and at another possible turning point in the production, Berman cuts back to interviews with the comedians we earlier saw praising Johnathan (Eric Andre, Judy Gold, "Weird Al" Yankovic), asking them what they make of the developments. Their brief reactions are more enjoyable than some of the roads Berman goes down himself, as he pulls in family members and his own childhood tragedies as part of his "what am I doing here?" floundering.

Promisingly, Berman flirts with questions that apply broadly to the glut of documentary projects being made today. But while he questions the motivations behind his and others' films, he never seems to wonder if the problem is less motivation than preparation. Though evidently smart and sincere, Berman doesn't seem to have the journalistic tools (or even inclination) that might have helped answer some of the questions he has about the facts of Szeles' life. When he has a legal question about what he can and can't do on camera, he cold-calls what appears to be the first law firm he finds online, then expects them to give a free answer.

Though his background with sometimes provocative TV comedy (Tim and Eric, Lady Dynamite) might have led Berman to reformat all his raw material into something funny and strange, he eventually goes in an oddly sentimental direction, casting aside his doubts in an attempt to make his subject happy. In the end, he takes some half-truths (or unintentional lies) he has been told and tries to make them true. Whatever full-circle value that may have in storytelling terms, it's hardly promising for Berman's career as a documentarian.

Production companies: Cold Iron Pictures, Anonymous Content, Horse Horse Horse Production
Director: Ben Berman
Producers: Miranda Bailey, Amanda Marshall
Executive producers: Simon Chinn, Jason Beck, Jon Mugar, Kirk Johnson
Directors of photography: Dan Adlerstein, Ben Berman
Editors: Scott Evans, Ben Berman
Composer: Zack Wright
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Sales: Submarine, Verve

90 minutes