Sundance Review: Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary

Score:  B+

Director: Ben Berman

Cast: The Amazing Johnathan, Anastasia Synn, Ben Berman, "Weird Al" Yankovic

Running Time: 91 Minutes

Rated: NR

The Amazing Johnathan has long been one of the most interesting stand-up comedians. Combining magic, jokes and prop comedy, he makes the stupid smart and the silly sublime. Sidelined with a heart condition, he was only given a year to live. But he persevered, returning to tour against his doctor's advice. This would seemingly be the perfect set-up for a documentary: How does a comedian keep people laughing in the face of a grim prognosis? Will returning to do what gives him life be the death of him?

But this is not the direction this still-untitled documentary takes. In fact, I'm not aware of any documentary that keeps zigging and zagging like this, affecting the filmmaker to the point where it partly becomes a documentary about him. The big source of tension arrives early on, when director Ben Berman (an Adult Swim and Comedy Central vet) learns Johnathan has hired another crew to work on their own documentary about his life, and basically lets them compete for prime interview time and shooting space at the theaters on his tour.

It's such a source of stress that Ben even considers smoking crystal meth on-screen with Johnathan just so he'll have some footage no one else does. But while the twists and turns are surprising, the footage we see here proves it's not hard for Johnathan to drive someone crazy. He's a mess of contradictions: a fun guy who's also a bit of a dick, a guy who's determined but can't kick his addictions, someone who wants attention but can't help but push people away.

The film takes so many detours and circles back, pausing to comment on the latest insane information we just received, it's as much a deconstruction of documentaries as it is one itself. I don't know what all legal issues the film will have to resolve before it gets released or even gets a title, but it will be worth it. Pulling this film off really required some magic.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.