Whether sawing into his arm with a butcher’s knife or swallowing his own eyeball, The Amazing Johnathan was a reliable source of manic energy at many an ’80s and ’90s stand-up show. John Szeles, the self-described “Freddy Krueger of Comedy,” regularly bulldozed his way onto showcases like Late Night With David Letterman and Comic Strip Live, and his gory, stupid-smart deconstructions of magic and coked-up circus geek antics eventually earned him Las Vegas headlining gigs well into the 21st century. Then, in 2014, he announced that he’d been diagnosed with a serious heart condition, saying doctors had given him only a year to live. The Amazing Johnathan retired, seemingly destined to fade into the annals of cult comedy and the memories of ’80s kids who watched too much cable. But then came the kicker: Szeles kept on living. And after a while, he grew bored and anxious to return, even if it meant dying on stage. Literally.
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, from first-time documentarian Ben Berman, picks up the story from there, capturing Szeles as he putters around a mansion strewn with memorabilia and medicine bottles, watching his old tapes and choking down pills. It’s a tragicomic sight—the magician whose greatest trick was not disappearing—and Szeles and his wife, fellow magician Anastasia Synn, grouse to Berman about this terrible gift of time they’ve been given with nothing to fill it. Nothing, that is, but the meth Szeles still smokes daily, taking it “like vitamins” in front of Berman’s cameras and over Synn’s muted protests. For want of something to do besides slowly wasting away, Szeles hatches a farewell tour. And as Berman’s crew tags along, capturing Szeles as he struggles through his old material at half-speed, Szeles ponders whether anyone’s turning up for the love of his comedy, or if it’s just the morbid desire to bear witness when he finally drops dead.
That’s the big question for Berman, too, one that becomes even thornier once his movie’s central “twist” (which bears spoiling) is revealed. Approximately six months into filming, Szeles is joined by a rival camera crew—a team that’s already racked up two Academy Awards, Szeles proudly tells Berman. With Szeles enamored of this more “important” documentary, and rubbing it in his face at every opportunity, Berman immediately shifts focus to himself as he grapples with how to frame his now seemingly redundant project, along with his personal existential crisis over whether he should even bother. This quandary is further complicated by Szeles, who grows increasingly distant and inscrutable, leading Berman to suspect he’s being manipulated. The trust between them sours; Szeles has, after all, made an entire career out of misdirection. Has he been playing Berman all along, even about his illness? As one of Szeles’ friends puts it, “Can you trust anything a magician does?”
It’s an intriguing premise, and one that The Amazing Johnathan Documentary only toys with confronting. Comparisons to other unreliably narrated documentaries like Catfish and Exit Through The Gift Shop contributed to its buzz around Sundance, and it plays up its own reveals and betrayals with a similar sense of drama. Thematically, the film aspires to a sort of philosophical musing on the nature of truth and illusion, like a prop-comedy spin on Orson Welles’ F For Fake. But ultimately, its twists will only prove shocking to the extent of your interest in the exclusivity of celebrity interviews, or perhaps the minutiae of film production. And the most tantalizing suggestion the film makes—that Szeles might be exaggerating his condition as part of some sick, publicity-seeking joke—is only briefly considered, and never fully investigated. Its opening disclaimer, “Everything in this film is strictly based on the available facts,” offers only a preemptive shrug.
Berman’s film is slightly more pointed when it’s calling out our current glut of documentaries and their increasingly shopworn formulas: their casual exploitations of personal tragedies; their subjects’ clearly rehearsed soundbites; their directors’ insistence on making themselves part of the story. Still, this feint at meta commentary feels a bit overblown, born as it is out of Berman’s somewhat petulant gripes over having to share Szeles with the other buzzards swarming the green room. In that sense, Berman’s decision to turn the camera on himself feels less like subverting the medium and more like self-pity. Even the talking heads like “Weird Al” Yankovic, Judy Gold, Eric Andre, and Carrot Top exist mostly as a sounding board for Berman’s complaints, laughing at his situation and offering him middling advice, while only intermittently commenting on The Amazing Johnathan himself.
As Berman grows increasingly despondent—and Szeles stops taking his calls—he begins asking himself why he was so interested in Szeles in the first place, and whether he’s guilty of exploiting another man’s death for his own selfish gain. It’s another tough question, but again it’s one the film only dances around, loosely linking Berman’s motivations to a childhood tragedy while glossing over any real self-examination with glops of sentimentality. Throughout, it’s never entirely clear whether Berman, a veteran of absurdist TV like Tim And Eric and Lady Dynamite, is knowingly parodying these kinds of navel-gazing documentary tropes—deconstructing them the way The Amazing Johnathan once took apart hacky card tricks—or if he’s simply falling prey to them.
On the plus side, that well-honed comic timing proves a natural fit for a film that casts Berman as just another stooge in The Amazing Johnathan’s act, and the two develop a lightly abusive relationship that’s always fun to watch, even when Berman’s humiliations turn redundant. His is an appreciably unconventional approach to an unusual subject, and the results are frequently amusing—although The Amazing Johnathan Documentary doesn’t give much insight into Szeles beyond his addictions and a compulsive desire to perform, whatever the cost. (Presumably Berman decided to leave that to those other documentaries.) Like The Amazing Johnathan’s act, it’s a funny, trippy, lively bit of sleight of hand that can often make you feel like you’re seeing something extraordinary, even if it’s just some prankster fucking with you.