The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary ★★★★★

2019 movie viewings, #100. Normally I'm not a fan of documentaries that give screen time to reprehensible human beings -- for example, see my vitriolic reaction earlier this year to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a beautifully made film that's unfortunately about a literal human monster -- but I have to confess, I was absolutely riveted by Ben Berman's new The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, despite it being a shambling mess entirely devoted to one of the most unrepentant douchebags to ever voluntarily participate in a full-length feature devoted to him. And that's because this doc turns out to be a lot more than just a portrait of the obscure Las Vegas magician/comedian (real name John Szeles), a cable-TV mainstay in the '80s who has recently been in the public radar again because of contracting a fatal disease (or has he?...but more on that in a bit); it is in fact an unvarnished, probing look at the unchecked narcissism combined with crippling self-loathing that marks the personality of so many people who choose to be public entertainers, done entirely with the gleeful willingness of Szeles because he thought he was pulling a fast one on the filmmakers in question, inadvertently revealing himself as the human piece of trash he and so many other bottom-feeders of the entertainment industry are.

For those who don't already know the by-now infamous setup, Berman was invited to follow Szeles on an end-of-life farewell tour of his Penn-and-Telleresque "anti-magic" show; but just a few months after beginning production, one day a second documentary crew suddenly appears, apparently under the employ of Oscar-winning producer Simon Chinn (Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man), who Szeles craftily decides to double-book because he figures this newer team has a better shot of making him famous. But wait, do they actually work for Chinn or not? And what about the third and then fourth documentary teams who eventually come out of the woodwork? Is Szeles really so clueless as to smoke crystal meth on camera, or is it an elaborate hoax in an attempt to become a viral hit? For that matter, is he actually sick in the first place, or has this entire thing been a desperate Hail Mary to get back into the public limelight?

For those worried that I'm revealing all the fun surprises of the movie, let me assure you that there's tons more where this comes from; and by the end, the astute Berman (a veteran of such edgy TV comedies as Tim and Eric, Workaholics, Lady Dynamite and Comedy Bang! Bang!) delivers a devastating portrait of a cheesy Vegas hanger-on so desperate for the continued adulation of drunk strangers no matter the cost, he can no longer understand where his real life ends and his crass fictional manipulation of the people around him begins, all the more amazing for Berman not really doing anything in particular to capture this astounding look at an egomaniac's meltdown, instead merely turning on his cameras and letting Szeles tie his own noose.

To be clear, Szeles is a happy fan of the finished film, participating in a publicity junket for it and even promoting the movie at his Twitter account; and that's perhaps the most jaw-dropping part of this saga of all, that he's so utterly unable to see just how much of a piece of shit he comes across as here, because he's so busy glorying in the newfound attention the doc has brought to his career. It's a perfect microcosm of the entire entertainment industry in the 21st century, an endless parade of loud-mouthed halfwits who don't give even the tiniest fuck about their reputation, just as long as it keeps feeding the like-and-follow machine that lets them remain in the public eye; and when historians confusedly try to figure out in the future how a barely literate clown like Donald Trump could become President, it's to films like these that they'll turn, a perfect record of our empty American Downfall times. It comes strongly recommended to one and all, even more so because of being completely free to stream at Hulu.

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