The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

Review by Matt Turner

Directed by

Benjamin Berman

Starring

Benjamin Berman Eric André The Amazing Johnathan

Anticipation.

Magic. Meth. Mayhem. It’s a bit of fun.

Enjoyment.

Twists and turns, sleights-of-hand, reminders to remain skeptical.

In Retrospect.

A daft, dazzling exercise in reflexivity, albeit a somewhat familiar one.

American magician John Szeles attempts to pull off one final trick in this slippery meta-doc.

“Can you trust anything that a magician does?” This is the crucial query posed to director Ben Berman midway through his film about one. It sets off a series of second-guesses that threaten to collapse his project.

Doubting his own integrity as well as the honesty of his principal subject, he starts to question not just the direction that his own film is taking, but the validity of his entire professional field. What does it mean to adopt a way of working where the best outcome is often a bad one, and the fastest route to reaching results is rarely the most righteous?

Berman’s focus is John Szeles, an American magician who made a lot of money off a gross-out act in the ’80s. Now drug-dependent, out of work and terminally ill, he stages a comeback tour to cash in on the fact that – having outlasted his initial prognosis – he might die on stage at any moment. It’s a grimly comic situation and, unsurprisingly, Berman isn’t the only one interested in documenting it.

Given that The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is a film shaped around a series of compellingly staged and structured surprises, to say any more about the route it takes would undermine its desired effect. As with similarly slippery, twisty-turny pop-doc meta-exercises as Tickled and Three Identical Strangers, little about this story is as it first seems.

What separates it from those films are its subversions of the conventions of the sort of standard doc-biopic it initially positions itself as. It exposes the volatility and unreliability of documentary filmmaking by making it a plot point. By underscoring his manipulations, indulgences and ethical oversights as a filmmaker, Berman manages to create something smarter and funnier than the film he set out to make. His subject might disagree.

Published 17 Nov 2019

Tags: Benjamin Berman The Amazing Johnathan

Anticipation.

Magic. Meth. Mayhem. It’s a bit of fun.

Enjoyment.

Twists and turns, sleights-of-hand, reminders to remain skeptical.

In Retrospect.

A daft, dazzling exercise in reflexivity, albeit a somewhat familiar one.

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