Last spring, “Always Amazing” — a scrappy portrait of gonzo stand-up/magician/performance artist John Edward Szeles, aka the Amazing Johnathan — premiered at Vancouver’s Just for Laughs Festival. This is not a review of that movie, although Ben Berman’s “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary” (as this competing project was strategically dubbed at the Sundance Film Festival) wrestles with the fact that its director wasn’t the only opportunist to express an interest in capturing the final days of a showman who was given one year to live more than four years ago.
The question — one of many raised in a film that ultimately becomes more concerned with Berman’s journey than it ever seems to have been about its original subject — is whether the notorious prankster was being honest when he shared his diagnosis in the first place. Was it all one big publicity stunt? Could it be that Johnathan planned to fake his death and that Berman has been enlisted as an unwitting accomplice in the greatest magic trick of all time? To repeat these cockamamie theories is to play along with the film’s clumsy sense of itself as something more than it is, which is basically an inexperienced director’s semi-exploitative short, elaborately reconceived after the first indication that Berman wasn’t the one in control.
And yet, to the extent that audiences are willing to go along with an overwrought documentary that strives to imitate what far more professionally executed podcasts have innovated in recent years (best illustrated by “Serial,” the host of which interrogates her own doubts and motives at each step along the way), Berman’s stunt could turn into one of the year’s buzzier nonfiction releases. Still, for anyone who knows how celebrity profiles typically work, it’s exasperating to watch this virtual amateur struggling to adapt to basic setbacks. What, pray tell, did Berman expect? For his subject to die on camera?
Already, there’s something tacky in the way Berman insists on showing Johnathan smoking crystal meth on camera. It’s not that Johnathan has been secretive about his drug habit (he claims to have spent two decades of his career fueled by cocaine, and his latest addiction is taking an outward toll on him), but keeping such behavior off-screen is one of the standard courtesies extended in exchange for access. Then again, Berman clearly takes issue with the kind of access he’s given, which becomes a thing less than half an hour in, when what’s shaping up to be a candid, behind-the-scenes look at the Amazing Johnathan’s so-called Farewell Tour suddenly takes a turn.
To preserve the surprise, stop reading now … although it seems disingenuous for the movie to treat as a spoiler what any documentarian ought to have expected — namely, that anyone with a camera could swoop in and scoop Berman. Is it really such a shocker that several tried to do exactly that? Certainly, any journalist worth his or her salt should anticipate the possibility and know how to navigate this challenge. (At press junkets, for example, celebrities often give the same sound bites to countless writers, who find unique ways to present them so their stories don’t feel redundant.) The challenge is to find a fresh angle — whereas Berman’s solution is to make the film about himself: why he felt betrayed and how he hopes to salvage a documentary that, disappointingly, never tries to dig very deep into Johnathan’s past, his psychology, or even his act.
Such filmmaking isn’t necessarily lazy (Berman’s is a creative and boldly personal approach) so much as it is unconventional, eschewing rigorous reporting for shallow self-involvement. Instead of investigating why Johnathan became a magician and how he developed his persona, Berman asks himself why he, Ben Berman, is so drawn to stories of death, sharing vintage home videos — dating back to when the director first got his hands on a camera as a child — that put this project into a more poignant context. At his most desperate, Berman goes to extreme lengths to show his commitment, evidently taking Johnathan up on an outrageous offer in a scene that’s sure to go down in doc history.
Meanwhile, Johnathan seems unfazed that he’s essentially pitting filmmaking teams against one another. “We have Ben,” he boasts, presenting Berman to a radio host, “and the other really important documentary crew,” which allegedly has two Oscars to its credit. These days, practically every B-list celebrity appears to have at least one documentary being made about them at any given moment. This year’s Sundance brings a second Steve Bannon movie, months after Errol Morris bowed one at the Venice Film Festival. Hulu and Netflix just launched rival docs about Fyre Festival featuring many of the same talking heads.
On the subject of talking heads, at what point did Berman convince the likes of Penn Jillette, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Carrot Top to participate? (Their interviews appear to have been conducted fairly late in the production, since he asks them to weigh in on the way Johnathan treated him.) Berman eventually does prove to be rather resourceful, pulling off a coup that surprises even Johnathan in the end — and that’s no easy trick.