Illusionists sometimes rely on forced perspective to carry off a trick. Ben Berman’s meandering tragi-comic documentary The Amazing Johnathan could do with some perspective of its own.
In the world of stand-up John Szeles – The Amazing Johnathan – was huge. His jaw-dropping act combined sleight of hand with hardcore gore, to deliciously gross effect and from the mid-’80s until his last shows in 2014 he made fans of industry professionals alongside the comedy club crowds and Vegas audiences he entertained.
Director Ben Berman capitalises on this fanbase early on in his film when he interviews Penn Jillette, Criss Angel, Judy Gold and Eric André (among others) lauding Szeles’ skills and pondering his legacy (he amusingly returns to them later in the film with questions of another kind). Because The Amazing Johnathan is dying – handed a death sentence diagnosis of cardiomyopathy complete with a one-year countdown clock – and has withdrawn from showbiz. Or so Ben believes…
What an irresistible prospect for a first time documentarian, the idea of capturing the final days of a dying magician. And Ben’s extensive experience as a comedy director must have given him an appetite for the absurd because he anchors himself to The Amazing Johnathan and his apparently sinking ship with heroic aplomb. Hanging on for dear life as the voyage takes some unexpected turns and his project looks set to sink.
John Szeles is a compelling subject to document – irrespective of his health status – mercurial, wry and hopelessly addicted to crystal meth. Together with his wife, the magician Anastasia Synn, John ekes out a soul-crushing Groundhog Day existence, dabbling with art, flailing fully clothed in his pool and mugging for the camera as Ben scrabbles to find a throughline and discreetly waits for his protagonist to die.
The Amazing Johnathan doesn’t die. Instead, he makes a comeback. A shambolic, bewigged, bumbling comeback but a return to the limelight nonetheless. And his thirst for the limelight doesn’t end there. Ben has competition; he was not the only one to see the potential for jerking tears and double-fisting awards in the tale of a stand-up’s expiry. In a wave of existential angst and actual panic, he turns the camera on himself and his loved ones and wonders where on earth to go from here.
The Amazing Johnathan is a provocative film but provocative of questions rather than emotions. If it is the pitch-black comedy Ben Berman’s credentials could suggest, it is a thing of subtle beauty. Unfortunately, Mr Berman’s comments on the matter and a peppering of clues within the feature pointing towards his legitimate cluelessness suggest otherwise.
Assuming the latter, The Amazing Johnathan becomes something of a study of missed opportunities and lack of emotional intelligence. Our narrator flails around in search of an original story to tell, looking to home movie footage from his own life for motivation and sadly shaking his head when he draws a blank.
In a perfect (but unfortunately accidental) mirror to John’s obliviousness, Ben overlooks his father and Anastasia – in past and present respectively – repeatedly expressing, with raw eloquence, their grief, all that they are losing and have lost. But we are there to hear them. Despite its flaws and its haphazard narrative, those glimmers of truth and the clumsy bumper car humour of the competing productions make The Amazing Johnathan worth 90 minutes of your time.
The Amazing Johnathan will be released in the UK on 19th November. Louis Theroux will host a special Q&A screening of the film on 19th November, to be simulcast nationwide across the UK.