The Amazing Johnathan in Ben Berman's documentary

Sundance ’19 Review: Ben Berman Gets to the Truth of an Illusion in “The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary”

There’s some poetry how behind the many surprises in “The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary” that will no doubt give the film its immediate identity, they may hide what’s truly special about what director Ben Berman has accomplished, asking provocative questions about the limitations of the documentary form for conveying truth. Although there’s long been the saying that every movie is a documentary of the time it’s being made in, of course the inverse is true with somebody operating the camera – every movie is fiction at some level, relying on what is possible to film and what choices are being made by the filmmakers. Berman acknowledges this much upfront, announcing with a title card, “Everything in this film is strictly based on the available facts,” and surely he wasn’t expecting to make a film that would challenge the nature of the craft when he approached the Amazing Johnathan with a pitch to join him on tour, chronicling the compelling story of the comic magician as he went back on the road three years after a devastating cardiomyopathy diagnosis.

While Johnathan wasn’t expected to live a full year after being diagnosed, he’s lived three, finally emboldened to leave his house for gigs at the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut and the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club in California and he plans to be no less outrageous than he once was, putting nails through his tongue and putting straws through his ear to come out his nose. With accompanying interviews with Judy Gold, Eric Andre and Carrot Top testifying to the Amazing Johnathan’s heyday in the ‘90s, influential with his cable specials and wealthy from becoming a Vegas headliner, you come to expect an inspiring comeback story, trusting that after Johnathan says, “Every show will get better,” even after he looks exhausted from his first show, it will. However, Berman quite literally hits the pause button, treating the film as if it were a VHS tape that can be rewound and fast-forwarded, when he no longer feels the the truth is unfolding in front of the camera, though impressively it doesn’t stop him from arriving at something honest about the film’s subject.

Despite Berman eventually being pulled in front of the camera, Johnathan begins to loom larger when he’s off-screen than on, with the access he’s giving to the film becoming a measure of control that he no longer has in other aspects of his life and if that weren’t intriguing enough, Berman has to ask himself why he’s making a film about Johnathan in the first place, leading to the troubling epiphany that when its very premise involves a terminal diagnosis, he may have subconsciously intended to tell a story about Johnathan’s impending death rather than the life he’s lived. Having a background in directing TV comedies such as “Man Seeking Woman” and “Workaholics,” Berman keeps the mood relatively light yet deals with unexpectedly profound concerns over the responsibility of telling another person’s story, beginning to put all the people involved in making the film in unfamiliar on-screen roles, refreshingly abdicating any authority inferred by his job title by asking them for advice about what he should and shouldn’t do as a filmmaker.

The audience is placed in an unusual position as well, left to realize that the real truth lies in the behavior of Berman and Johnathan as they negotiate how to make the film as opposed to anything that will actually be in it, and although Berman spends much of “The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary” grappling with whether he can trust anyone, the genius of the film resides in how much faith he puts in the audience to come to their own conclusions. He and co-editor Scott Evans shrewdly build in enough context throughout so even the wildest turns have some foundation and while the film’s subject may be wily by profession, Berman does him justice by showing how sleight of hand can ultimately reveal the whole person, especially when he does it so entertainingly well.

“The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary” will show at Sundance on January 26th at 3:30 pm at the Redstone Cinema in Park City, January 27th at 9:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinema in Salt Lake City, January 31st at 9 pm at the Library Center Theatre in Park City and February 1st at 8:30 pm at the MARC Theatre in Park City,