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The Amazing Jonathan Documentary: A Review


My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. This film is mildly amusing but lack any and all insight into it’s subject.

The Amazing Jonathan Documentary, directed by Ben Berman, chronicles the difficulties of making a documentary about the moderately famous magician/prop comic, Amazing Jonathan, as he mounts a comeback while suffering from a terminal medical condition. The film is currently streaming on Hulu.

Jonathan Szeles, otherwise known as The Amazing Jonathan, is a third rate, c-level comedian who hit it big and became a Vegas mainstay with his relentless and hackneyed magic-comedy. From 2001 to 2014 he was a year-round headliner in the City of Sin and made a nice fortune for himself doing so. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a heart condition and given one year to live…so he retired from performing. Four years later he was still alive and so decided to head back out and do some more shows, and director Ben Berman decided to document it all.

The Amazing Jonathan Documentary is a film about desperation, the desperation of Jonathan to find meaning and purpose in the last years of his life, and the desperation of Ben Berman not only to find a story to tell when the truth is elusive, but to make a name for himself.

The Amazing Jonathan is an amusing persona, and getting a glimpse into this character’s supposed reality is often-times chuckle-inducing. Amazing Jonathan is, to put it mildly, detached from objective reality, and our brief jaunts through his subjective reality are certainly revealing of the oddity of his peculiar head space.

The problem though is that documentarian Ben Berman only gives us ever-so-brief glimpses into the persona of The Amazing Jonathan, but never breaks through the armor of that veneer and gives us the Jonathan Szeles living deep with in it. In this way the film is little more than a reality tv show that gives viewers canned and manipulated “performances’ and considers them to be “truth”.

In addition, Berman must deal with a series of absurdities regarding the actual film making process, and thus must scramble to adapt to new circumstances and try and cobble together a coherent narrative. Berman fails to overcome these obstacles for a variety of reasons, the most glaring is that instead of keeping the film focused on Jonathan, he makes the film about himself.

Berman switches mid-way through the film to using ham-fisted attempts at personal poignancy, psychological profundity and displays of artistic despair, in order to fill in the gaps of the story due to his inadequacies as a documentarian. These Berman performative sequences all ring hollow, manufactured and exploitative and radiate with an odious shamelessness. In short, Berman comes across as a very bad actor, and yet he tries to make himself the star of his movie because he thinks he is so interesting despite his obvious lack of charisma and likability.

Berman’s attempt at participatory documentary film making feels painfully self-serving and narcissisticly masturbatorial. In order to pull off this style of documentary film making, the director must be a unique yet pleasant character, think Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, not a nebbish desperate for attention, which is how Ben Berman, who is neither unique nor pleasant and is no Michael Moore or Morgan Suprlock, comes across. Berman goes to such great lengths to make a spectacle of himself in this film that when it isn’t painfully embarrassing it is plain annoying. The film devolves to become such a self-serving enterprise that Berman basically turns it into a blatant job interview.

The behind the scenes, movie making insider stuff, will no doubt resonate with anyone who has ever made a movie, particularly a documentary. Jonathan is an erratic nightmare of a subject, and Berman being stuck in his house of horrors does deliver some comedy, but that doesn’t make it even remotely insightful or worthwhile. Watching Jonathan torture Berman is satisfying on a sadistic level for the viewer and a masochistic level for Berman, but we came here to try and understand Jonathan, and none of that stuff gives us any deeper understanding of who he really is or what drives him.

What is so frustrating about The Amazing Jonathan Documentary is that Berman’s narcissistic focus distracts from Jonathan, and leaves his story, in essence, untold. I was left with a nagging feeling after watching this movie that, as difficult a nut as Jonathan is to crack, a more talented, more skilled, more dedicated and less vain film maker would have been able to break through and expose the actual truth about Jonathan. In essence this film is a documentation of Berman’s utter failure to do his job, which is to peel back the layers of The Amazing Jonathan and reveal the complexity and truth at the core of this strange and twisted man. Instead Berman gives us his reactions and responses to dealing with a difficult and temperamental performer…oooh…how groundbreaking….we’d get better insights watching The Bachelorette.

In conclusion, The Amazing Jonathan Documentary is an occasionally intriguing, but ultimately underwhelming documentary experience. Sadly, while the film is amusing in parts and absurd in others, it all feels a bit too self-serving and contrived to be of any genuine value. That said, if you work in the entertainment industry or on documentary films, you will probably appreciate the movie a bit more than the average Joe only because you will have had, at least once, similarly bizarre experiences with obliviously entitled talent.