The Amazing Johnathan Documentary review: morbidly meta hi-jinks on the trail of an anarchic magician

Filmmaker Ben Berman’s attempt to record John Szeles’s farewell tour is beset by unexpected competition and navel-gazing interludes in this offbeat doc.

John ‘The Amazing Johnathan’ Szeles in The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

John ‘The Amazing Johnathan’ Szeles in The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

During one of many enforced hiatuses in the creation of what eventually constitutes The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, hapless filmmaker Ben Berman experiences a priceless case of being kicked when you’re down. Having just learned that his portrait of anarchic magician John ‘The Amazing Johnathan’ Szeles is competing for privileged access with not one but three other projects, he glumly watches a TV clip of comic Marc Maron railing against documentary overload. “We got enough!” yelps Maron, lambasting an imagined critical mass of nonfiction.

But instead of concurring and bowing out of the crowded field, Berman responds by aping his wayward subject and embracing chaos. From this juncture, what’s initially conceived as a relatively straightforward account of a stricken prankster’s unlikely second wind fractures into a self-consciously knotty work along the reflexive lines of Catfish (2010), Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie (2015) or even F for Fake (1973).

Any meta hi-jinks are barely traceable in the film’s early going, which follows the tried and true methodology of the access-all-areas celebrity study. Berman catches up with Szeles three years after the magician announced his retirement, claiming that a serious heart condition had left him with only a year to live. While the temperamental Szeles plots a stage return against his doctors’ advice, Berman supplies a concise potted history of his subject. Footage of Szeles in his heyday, employing his trademark Dadaist, gross-out trickery – mock self-evisceration, chugging stem cells from a baby doll and so on – is combined with standard talking-head contributions from contemporaries including ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic and Penn & Teller.

However, when Berman’s crew takes to the road with Szeles for his farewell tour, the film changes shape. Szeles casually lets slip that a second documentary, apparently backed by the Oscar-winning producers of Man on Wire (2008), will be shooting simultaneously. Berman, feeling that he and Szeles had built a significant level of trust, is peeved and wounded by the disclosure. His intimate windows with Szeles begin shrinking as he is forced to work around the second crew’s movements. And that’s before a third project rears its head, an amateurish effort at the opposite end of the spectrum from Berman’s supposedly prestigious rival, produced by a man who juggles chainsaws for a living.

Is this all an elaborate hoax at Berman’s expense from a serial prankster? The question of whether or not he’s being played is one that Berman keenly latches on to as his progress stalls – there’s a degree of opportunism in his film’s switch to a more playful, voguish post-truth gear. Yet there’s also a hefty amount of navel-gazing that ensues, with the filmmaker questioning his fundamental reasons for making the film at all. He connects a crucial loss within his own family history – glimpsed in copious home movies – with Szeles’s dire health, and wonders if he’s morbidly obsessed with the spectre of death (“Are you disappointed I didn’t die in your film?” enquires Szeles bitterly in one mortifying confrontation).

It’s an intriguing link, yet Berman’s maudlin solipsism tends towards the enervating. More arresting are his increasingly desperate attempts to probe for answers: a bizarre quid pro quo scenario involving the smoking of crystal meth, or the hiring of an actor to be a plant in a Q&A screening. But all the sleight of hand deployed and hairpin twists manoeuvred ultimately can’t mask the fact that Berman has perhaps overestimated how endearing his floundering is. Behind the offbeat shenanigans, what you’re left with is the faintly narcissistic spectacle of a filmmaker using creative strife to work through his hang-ups. In this sense, it’s Berman, not Szeles, who has the last laugh.


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