[This is a re-post of my review from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. “The Amazing Johnathan Documentary” is now available on Hulu]
The unbelievable strangeness inherent in truth has made for some incredibly destabilizing documentaries about the blurred lines of fact and fiction. Films like “Dear Zachary,” “Catfish,” “Exit Through The Gift Shop”’ and “The Imposter” all blow themselves up in the middle all featuring “oh shit!”-like twists so disarming, so surprising they make one question the very reality and existence of what you’ve been watching. So, prepare to be fooled, thrilled and surprised with a new classic of this upending subgenre with “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary,” a doc that uses the integral subject of magic and artifice to create a riveting meta-story about the illusory nature of truth, trust and the self-examining questioning of what you thought to be real.
Directed by Ben Berman, who has worked on some crazy shows as an editor and director like “Tim and Eric,” and the gonzo“Lady Dynamite,” his documentary is wild too, a discombobulating rabbit hole within rabbit holes, but likely in a way he never ever imagined. It’s the story of magician The Amazing Johnathan (real name John Szeles). Jonathan has been given a devastating diagnosis, he has a terminal heart condition and is going to die. But as Berman goes out to follow Jonathan on a comeback tour, nothing is quite what it seems and soon, the director finds himself at the center of his own documentary, unintentionally having to Michael Moore himself into the story.
“Everything in this film is strictly based on the available facts,” the opening titles caution, suggesting the overturning gear-shifts to come. As the audience soon learns, Jonathan is an unpredictable illusionist who, by all accounts, cannot be trusted. Anything he says turns into sheer creative mayhem. Berman’s doc begins when he learns of Jonathan’s diagnosis. He’s given one year to live, forced to retire immediately and the filmmaker, who’s loved the obscure magician since he was a teenager, sets out to document him. Cut to three years later, however, and Jonathan is not only quite alive, but he’s also mounting an epic comeback tour around the country.
It gets wilder. Berman discovers that Jonathan has hired another documentary crew to follow him. And then a few months later yet another crew. And then another. Berman quickly becomes something more akin to punk’d victim than director, as if he’s fallen into the long-game master plan of a 5-dimensional chess-playing villain. “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary” then radically transforms into something else. Coming to terms with whether Jonathan is actually dying, and how he may have been duped, Berman has to ponder existential questions about what he’s making, what the film is about and how the hell he actually found himself in this position.
If it’s not already obvious, it’s hard to delve much deeper into the story without spoiling it. “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary” is a highly unusual hybrid that keeps metamorphosing. Its filmmaker wants to be as honest and informative as possible, but it’s difficult when his subject is a compulsive liar. At one point, it’s about a dying man and his legacy—there’s an entire thread about his crystal meth drug addiction, which Jonathan claims is as valuable to his health as vitamins—and then it goes lopsided and becomes a whole other beast.
While surely a frustrating bear of a process, Berman ultimately turns his incredible meta-story into an ode to documentary filmmaking. And its exhilarating stuff because you have absolutely no clue where this movie is going to take you next. Berman’s doc keeps pulling the rug from under you, and it’s a high-wire act of reinvention that rewards the viewer at every step.
Known for his work in outside-the-box shows such as “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and “Tim and Eric Nite Live,” there’s also a question of how much we should trust Berman. Perhaps its true slippery inspiration is that of Orson Welles’ meta non-fiction masterpiece, “F For Fake,” which examined the fundamental qualities of frauds, illusions, and trickery of cinema. An eccentric, wild and gripping goose chase of a film, all the jesters at the center of ‘Jonathan Documentary’ are fascinating and this unbelievable film and its rumination of trust and a rumination on the nature of non-fiction filmmaking, is nothing short of amazing. [A-]