2019 Milwaukee Film Festival – Review – THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY
It’s fitting that THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY has the word documentary right in the title. There’s two documentaries in here. A documentary about magician Johnathan Szeles who had been given less than a year to live diagnosis four years prior and a documentary about making a documentary about prankster magician Johnathan Szeles. It’s a stunt that recalls past documentaries like F FOR FAKE. Alas, it’s a whole lot less successful than F FOR FAKE.
Let’s start with the pluses. Johnathan Szeles is a groundbreaking comedian and prankster who disrupted traditional magic in many ways, which the film makes clear via talking heads and old footage. He’s a larger than life personality, complete with a bad toupee as a prop. He’s unrepentant about his drug use. And he’s full of life and mischief.
As captured by Ben Berman early on in the documentary, he’s an intriguing subject, but there’s nothing disruptive about what we’re seeing. About the only thing hanging out there is whether or not he’s going to actually die on stage during one of his performances as he’s staging a mini-comeback tour, possibly just because he’s bored and he likes to do.
And, perhaps because Ben Berman fears that they’re going to end up making a snuff film, the film bails on that initial conceit. Other documentary crews begin showing up to compete with Ben Berman. Including one apparently associated with the producer of MAN ON WIRE and LOOKING FOR SUGAR MAN. And Ben Berman starts to get wracked with doubts. Can he compete with these big boys? And, hey, can he trust that anything Johnathan, a notorious prankster, says is true?
There’s one point where Johnathan holds up a picture of a baseball pitcher holding a picture of a pitcher of water. It’s that type of self reflective recursion that the film seeks to capture and explore. At first it’s bracing and you get excited for the places that the film may be going. Unfortunately, Ben Berman isn’t much of an actor or a comedian. And, to make matters worse, the film really doesn’t have much deeper thoughts than “is this all, including the illness, a prank?” And, frankly, that becomes tiring after a while.
There are some really warm, thoughtful, funny, and bracing moments about The Amazing Johnathan. And there are a number of spots where THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY would do its subject proud with its disruptive prankster nature. But, in the end, I felt the meta aspects kind of sapped any trust and connection from the film. THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY takes some big swings, but ultimately I felt that it missed much more than it hit.
THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY plays once more at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Thursday, October 25th at 1:00 pm at the Times Cinema. The 2019 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from October 17, 2019 to October 31, 2019. Information and tickets can be found at Milwaukee Film’s website mkefilm.org.