Documentary filmmaker Ben Berman starts out making a documentary about The Amazing Johnathan, a popular ‘80s comedy magician who is heading out on a “comeback farewell” tour. But as the road trip unfolds, Berman increasingly feels he is being played.
The Amazing Johnathan opens with a titlecard explaining it is “based on available facts”. It’s the first warning we get that Ben Berman’s documentary isn’t exactly what it seems. It starts as a funny engaging profile of stunt magician John Edward Szeles, aka The Amazing Johnathan, who goes out on one last tour under the shadow of a usually fatal heart disease. Yet, as it develops, Berman’s film becomes a meditation on the constructed nature of cinematic non-fiction and the impossibility of objective truth. It has laugh-out-loud, jaw-dropping moments but ultimately feels manipulative and unsatisfying.
Entertaining and frustrating in equal measures.
It all starts innocently enough. Berman mounts a funny reminder of Szeles’ talent. Self-described as the “Freddy Krueger of magicians”, Szeles was an outrageous comedy illusionist during the ’80s, mixing sleight-of-hand and Grand Guignol comedy to convince startled audiences he was hacking off a limb or piercing his tongue. His outrageous shock tactics — he would snort “magic dust” between tricks — earned him TV appearances and Vegas residencies. For the uninitiated, Berman does a good job of recapping Szeles’ talent, using great clips and talking heads like Weird Al Yankovic (very likeable) and Carrot Top to put his talent in context.
It then transpires Szeles contracted a fatal heart disease known as cardiomyopathy which, the film tells us, means he only had a year to live. Three years later, he’s still alive, and Berman’s documentary project starts in earnest, visiting Szeles in his huge Los Angeles McMansion where the magician lives a desultory live, smoking meth and taking cocaine “like vitamins”. To break the routine, Szeles intends to stage a “comeback farewell” tour and invites Berman a long for the ride.
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At this point Szeles starts to implement a number of rug-pulls that leave the documentarian bemused and bewildered. For a while this is very funny, jaw-dropping stuff as Berman increasingly feels he is being duped. But as the curveballs mount up, it soon becomes clear that all bets are off in terms of what is fact and fiction, making it difficult to become invested in Berman’s plight. In the end, The Amazing Jonathan Documentary wants to make evident the stuff other documentaries try to hide. But, there is an argument to be made that, sometimes, you are better off not knowing how the trick is pulled off.
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary starts as a blast but as the journey progresses, becomes ever more slippery: Is Szeles tricking Berman? Is Berman bamboozling us? The answer is entertaining and frustrating in equal measures.